HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - The Horry County School District awarded FirstFloor Energy a contract to build five new energy positive schools in 2015. Four years later, the district and company are unable to say for certain if the buildings are ‘energy-positive.’
“There have been some months that have been energy positive, but again, this is on an annual basis so as these buildings get optimized we have seen an improvement in their efficiency and the amount of energy they’re using,” said Mark Wolfe, the executive director of facilities for the district. “They do use less than traditional schools, so we’re hopeful that they will end up meeting the contract requirements.”
Although three of the schools have been opened for two school years and the other schools for at least a year, FirstFloor said it won’t have enough data until December 2019.
FirstFloor CEO Robbie Ferris said the district initially chose to operate the buildings themselves.
“When the buildings opened initially we were under the assumption that the buildings would be programmed the way our control sequences, the sequences outlined in the drawings said they should be programmed and I think the district decided they wanted to use some of the sequences they were using in their existing buildings,” Ferris said.
Ferris explained that programming when the HVAC system, or air conditioning and heating, is turned on is a critical part of controlling the amount of energy consumed.
“Monitoring, controlling and optimizing are absolutely critical, they’re actually critical in the design of any building, but when it’s an energy positive building and you have contractual requirements to be energy positive it’s very important that you optimize your systems,” Ferris said.
Ferris said in January, FirstFloor was allowed to work on the control and programming of the five schools and now the company is trying to “catch up.”
“It was a setback,” Ferris admitted. “I think it cost us that first year and a half, depending on the schools, some of them cost us about a year.”
The amount of energy consumed by the schools was lower from January to March of 2019 than 2018, according to FirstFloor data.
Wolfe said there was also some technical and software issues that contributed to a delay in analyzing data.
“Initially, there was some hardware problems in some of the devices that Mr. Ferris was wanting to use in our buildings. They wouldn’t communicate with our software system and so there was some working between the district and Mr. Ferris to work out a way to get them to talk to the computers the way we needed them too and we finally got all that worked out.,” Wolfe said.
While energy consumption is mostly on the decline, the amount of energy produced by the schools is still lower than FirstFloor predicted from January to May.
Ten Oaks Middle School was the only school that produced more energy than initially predicted. Myrtle Beach Middle School, Socastee Elementary, St. James Intermediate, and Socastee Middle School all produced less than predicted, in some cases up to 19,000 kilowatts less.
In order for a building to be considered energy-positive, it must produce one kilowatt more than it consumes on an annual basis. While the district doesn’t have a full year’s worth of data, FirstFloor told the board in April that every school, but Socastee Elementary, was producing more energy than consumed.
Ferris said Socastee Elementary had a few inverters down that contributed to it not performing energy-positive.
Month to month, Horry County School District graphs show three of the schools have only been energy positive for around 25% of the time since January 2018. Those schools are Ten Oaks Middle School, Myrtle Beach Middle School, Socastee Elementary School.
St. James Intermediate has been energy positive for seven of the last 17 months and Socastee Middle School production was higher than its consumption for two months since August 2018.
Ferris said despite the initial setbacks, all the schools are on track to be energy-positive by the end of the year. Ferris explained it generally takes three years for schools to be fully energy-positive.
“Regardless of the programming, you would not be there the first year, there’s just no way you’re going to be able to optimize all those systems the first year and be energy-positive the first year,” he said.
He also explained an annual set of data is needed because temperature and daylight changed based on the time of year and affect the overall production of energy.
All five schools have used less electricity than other middle schools for a majority of the months, according to graphs created by the district. However, reports show in April and May, electricity usage age in all the schools increased beyond other older schools. Wolfe said the reason for the increase is still something he is trying to figure out.
When it comes to energy costs, the five new schools rate lower than other schools in the district.
The school district spent around $9.4 million last school year. The five energy-positive schools ranked at the bottom of the schools for energy costs. Of the five, Myrtle Beach Middle School had the highest energy cost at $123,529.
Wolfe explained occupancy, size and usage of all district schools makes energy costs and consumption vary.
Another part of the energy-positive schools is the contracts the district has with Santee Cooper and Horry County Electric. The district sells the energy it doesn’t recycle back into its buildings to the utility companies.
Wolfe said the district makes around $85,000 from the contract with the utility companies.
Wolfe also noted all the schools in the district have reduced their energy consumption by 20%, three years before the state mandated.