Wednesday, May 25, 2011

County to conduct $24K energy audit

Project, improvements would be budget-neutral


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Blaine County will spend $23,500 in federal grant money to conduct an energy audit of all its buildings, the first step toward developing a plan to improve energy efficiency.

The county commissioners expressed their support for a comprehensive audit during their meeting Monday, following a report by Director of Operations Char Nelson on the recent audit of the county's annex building.

Nelson said the audit, conducted by Seattle-based firm McKinstry Engineering, revealed a number of issues with the annex building, and a comprehensive audit of the entire county would save money and energy without placing an additional burden on local taxpayers.

"We'd be using grant funds, and we'd have some funds left," Nelson said.

A federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant funded the original audit and provided $50,000 for additional audits or to carry out other projects. Nelson said the funding could have been used to fix some of the problems with the annex building, but a comprehensive audit would benefit the county more.

Commissioner Larry Schoen disagreed with Nelson during the meeting, saying an audit was unnecessary.

"We don't need to hire an engineer to tell us we have a problem," he said. "How do we actually, practically, make a building more efficient?"

Nelson said the comprehensive audit would do more than just identify the energy problems the county already has.

"For instance, we know we have a major problem with energy use at the recycle center," she said.

The center's baler, which packages materials such as glass and plastic for shipping, must be heated to keep the mechanics from freezing up and shutting down.

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Propane to heat the baler was budgeted at $5,000 for fiscal year 2011, but Nelson said the center has had to spend $20,000 so far this fiscal year to keep the machinery from freezing.

"We know that's a major problem, but we don't know the best way to fix it," she said. "We've already identified problems, but this will let us really look at solutions."

She said the information from the audit would be used to develop a five-year plan for capital improvement projects, which would allow the county to plan for replacing and upgrading inefficient heating and cooling units, rather than waiting for those units to break down.

"That's a very risky way to do business," Nelson said. "It's like saying I'm not going to repair my car until it breaks down on the highway."

McKinstry Engineering estimates the audit will cost $23,500, a charge that is forgiven if McKinstry is chosen to carry out recommended improvements.

Nelson said that the county has the option to pay for the improvements via a method called performance contracting, described in Idaho code. Under that structure, the firm guarantees a set amount of savings on utility bills as a result of the improvements, and allows the county to pay off the cost of those improvements over time using those savings.

"The funds that would normally go to pay utilities go to pay for the work," Nelson said. "It's guaranteed, and if we run short of those savings, they will write us a check."

Nelson said that in addition to the energy savings, performance contracting can allow the county to carry out improvements at less cost to the taxpayer.

"There are a number of projects we would have to do anyway," she said, such as fixing the courthouse roof. "This way, we can lessen the financial impact."

The audit will likely be released in July, with an improvement plan to follow.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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