Aspen School District cashes in by upgrading lighting at Skier Dome | AspenTimes.com

Aspen School District cashes in by upgrading lighting at Skier Dome

The Aspen School District has seen the light — but now only when necessary.

Aspen High School has reduced its annual electricity and natural gas usage — as well as its greenhouse gas production — by 25 percent after replacing the old, inefficient lighting systems in the Skier Dome gym and lobby with LEDs that are triggered only when needed.

The result is a savings of $54,000 annually on the electrical bill.

In the old days, all 28 metal halide fixtures would turn on even if just a single student entered the gym to shoot hoops, said Lara Whitley, community engagement and marketing manager for the Community Office for Resource Efficiency. The light would flood the entire 15,000-square-foot Skier Dome with 30,000 watts of power.

“The old system was akin to using a blowtorch to light a match.” — Lara Whitley, CORE

"These lights would remain on all day unless someone happened to turn them off," Whitley said. "The old system — a best practice in its day — was akin to using a blowtorch to light a match."

That's where CORE entered the picture. The Aspen-based organization offered the school district a $30,000 grant in 2012 to audit its energy consumption. The school district put up about the same amount to hire SGM Engineering to conduct the study, according to Marty Treadway, CORE's energy smart program manager.

Investment paying off

After identifying how it could boost efficiency, the school district scored additional matching grants to make improvements. Holy Cross Energy, a cooperative that serves much of the Roaring Fork Valley, provided a $125,000 "Think Big" grant that covered about half the cost of installing the high-efficiency lighting system. The school district put up $125,000 of its own funds.

In fall 2014, the high school installed 80-watt LEDs in the gym that have built-in sensors to detect when a person is walking into the cavernous space.

"They pop on after a person walks through," Treadway said.

The district also fine-tuned its automated system controlling natural gas usage to make it more efficient.

The district's $125,000 investment will have paid for itself through energy savings by the end of 2017. Then the district will start reaping dividends from its lower electricity bills. "It will be a Christmas present," Treadway said.

Improvements as budget allows

The school district used some of the funds retrofitting its lighting systems and improving natural gas consumption at the middle school.

Cumulatively, the school district pared about $65,000 annually from its energy bills. It was paying $250,000 per year prior to the energy-efficiency upgrades.

Don Stalker, the maintenance technician at the high school who also worked until recently at the elementary school, said the retrofits will continue as the budget allows.

"Oh, we have to (keep pursuing the steps)," Stalker said. "It's part of life nowadays."

So far, all five gyms in the three public schools have been retrofitted with motion-sensor LED lights, he said. Night lights and emergency lights also have been upgraded but there are numerous other lights that can be replaced, Stalker said. For example, all the lights in the elementary school classrooms are still fluorescent lights, he said.

Better than a bake sale

Whitley quipped that saving $65,000 annually through energy efficiency is better than holding bake sales to raise funds for the school district.

Assistant Superintendent Tom Heald said the savings in electricity bills can be transferred to education.

"Do that year after year, and that's a teaching position that we can create and maintain in perpetuity just by changing some light bulbs," he said.

CORE Director Mona Newton said part of the mission of the organization is to achieve massive energy savings. Therefore, CORE specifically targets large, institutional buildings for energy-efficiency upgrades with the hope that similar facilities will follow suit.

"That's the route to scale," Newton said.

Treadway said it would take energy-efficiency upgrades in about 100 homes to achieve the reductions achieved at the schools.

That's what makes grants such as Holy Cross Energy's Think Big program so valuable. CORE also has $500,000 available in Udall Grants and $100,000 in Community Grants.

"Most schools would do this if they had the capital, but who has $200,000 laying around?" he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com