Illinois institutions try to keep the heat in
January 12, 1984
Learning new habits is hard. Teaching new habits is a lot harder, especially when the student in a public institution. Figuring out who benefits and who pays can lead to muddle, especially when the subject is energy efficiency
Interesting, isn't it, how night-time lows of twenty below zero concentrate the mind? A year ago energy didn't matter. But at the December meeting of the board of Springfield's School District 186 the issue arose again, in the form of a question from a newly-elected board member: "Mr. Maslauski" (read the official minutes) "asked if they had an energy policy that says when somebody can open a window?"
It was with the relief which only a new taxpayer can feel that 1 went on to read that Springfield public schools do indeed have such a policy. Heating and cooling not just schools, but hospitals and offices account for large chunks of the budgets of public agencies. One is used to watching one's tax money flying out the window in a figurative sense, but it is still reassuring to learn that steps have been taken to stop its literal escape.
A few examples:
Between 1976 and 1981, energy costs per square foot on Illinois college campuses rose 107 percent. Conservation steps had cut energy consumption per foot by nearly 16 percent over the same period, but obviously not enough to keep the actual dollar cost from rising. (Both costs and consumption have continued their divergent trends since 1981, but at slower paces.) Total energy costs at the University of Illinois' Urbana campus in 1983 were nearly $17 million, for example, which is almost enough to buy a football team.
In 1981, utility bills made up nearly a quarter of the annual budget of Springfield's Prairie Capital Convention Center. (Perhaps this is why the board of the PCCC adopted the nickname "The Center"; it costs so much less to put it in lights on the marquee board.)
Springfield's Lincoln Land Community College, after years of trimming, still had to budget nearly $630,000 for energy in 1982. Allowing a generous average salary of $30,000, that's enough money to pay twenty-one instructors. Our education dollars, it would seem, buy more heat than light.
That these bills are higher than they need to be goes without saying. Inefficient building design exacts its costs, as does poor management. The pre-OPEC notion that energy costs are essentially fixed, built into a building like the plumbing, survives everywhere. The board of the PCCC, for example, has often justified its levy of a tax on local property as the only way it can make up the deficit caused by its failure to collect an agreed-upon $100,000 in annual lease fees from the much-delayed convention center hotel next door. The possibility that most or all of that $100,000 could be recovered through reduced energy costs seems not to have occurred to them.
Public agencies vary in the speed with which they have wakened to the implications of high energy costs in an era of dwindling public resources. The higher ed establishment, for instance, reacted rather quickly; by the end of the '70s, Southern Illinois University had saved $4 million at its Carbondale campus alone. Yet it wasn't until 1981 that the state put storm windows on the governor's mansion in Springfield.
Of all public bodies, local school systems probably wasted the most energy. As usual, the culprit was inefficient design—high ceilings, lots of glass on shady sides of buildings—aggravated by poor management. Janitors typically ran heating systems according to the same philosophy which led their principals to cope with the problem of failing students by promoting them; if a room was too hot, they'd open a window. Organizers report that when the Institutions Task Force of the Springfield Energy Project began their deliberations in 1981, District 186's representatives showed the least sophisticated awareness of energy issues on the panel.
No more. Since then, District 186 has adopted a broad program of energy-saving improvements. In his published list of nine objectives for 1983–84, superintendent Donald Miedema listed energy improvements and conservation as his second and third priority. One can understand why, given the system's precarious finances; in the first year electricity use dropped 15 percent and gas use by 22.5 percent. Some of the latter savings was due to last year's mild winter. But at a recent board meeting, Miedema reported that on a recent December day, when temperatures had dropped to record lows, only two of the four boilers at Springfield High School (a sixty-seven-year-old building, recently refitted) were needed. Last winter, before the energy improvements had been completed, all four boilers had to be run "full blast" on much milder days.
The economics of energy conservation hinge on the willingness to spend some money today to save more money tomorrow. But spending for the future is not likely to win many friends when so many demands of the present are left unmet: An anonymous letter circulated by unhappy teachers during the recent school strike in Springfield complained in part, "The district sunk $3 million in Springfield High School . . . to avoid having funds to pay teachers."
It is suggestive that those public institutions, such as universities and hospitals, which learned the arithmetic of the new energy era are those which are the most insulated from public opinion. Pay-back periods for most energy improvements seldom extend further than five years or so, but the standard term of elective office is four years. What is a man profited, elected officials ask, if he shall gain BTUs to burn, and lose his seat?
One solution is to get somebody else to pay for it. Illinois' Department of Energy and Natural Resources, for instance, runs several conservation programs aimed at institutions, offering computerized energy use profiles, energy audits, technical assistance—and cash. The most recent award of federal matching grant funds for the Institutional Conservation Program amounted to $12.4 million, the largest in five years; most of that will go to eighty-three qualifying schools and hospitals for the purchase and installation of energy equipment. (Several of these are in central Illinois.)
The economic rationale for such grant programs is reasonably straightforward. Conservation slows the consumption of irreplaceable fossil fuels, creates jobs for fabricators and installers of everything from duct tape to microchip thermostat control systems, and defers costly utility expansions and their attendant pollution—not as much as a jet fighter, in other words, but still not a bad way to spend public money.
Alas, access to capital is not the only impediment to conservation. Human nature remains intractable. The utilities manager of SIU's Carbondale campus has complained that staffers there brought in their own electric space heaters, tinkered with thermostats, even changed light bulbs in contravention of his conservation program.
Last year the General Services Administration installed vestibules at the entrances to the federal building in downtown Springfield. The purpose of the vestibule is to prevent the exchange of cold outside air with heated indoor air every time any one of the many hundreds of people who visit that building goes in or out. During the morning rush, however, the inside door of the new vestibule is typically pushed back far enough to lock itself in an open position—where it stays, perfectly frustrating the purpose for which it was installed.
That door makes a useful case study in the dilemmas of bending private behavior to public ends. Several questions suggest themselves. Are people so lazy that the marginal exertion of opening a second door is unacceptable? Are they so stupid that they simply don't realize the purpose of that second door? Encountering the second door, do they shrink from closing it themselves on the assumption that it had been deliberately left ajar by the building's managers? Do they fear that by closing it they would be guilty of presumption, perhaps even a federal crime?
Or do they see the open door, realize its purpose and the costs of leaving it open, and choose not to close it simply because they somehow believe that it is not their money that is being wasted? The link between cost and benefit is vague to the taxpayers shuttling in and out of that door every morning. At home, changes in energy behavior result in rewards which are both immediate and personal. Rewards which are long-range and accrue to the public just won't close many doors. ●