Kiona-Benton School District, outside of Richland, WA, is one of the smallest school districts in the state. With only two main buildings—one of which was rebuilt down to the steel girders two years ago—school district managers had never given much thought about how they could trim their energy bills.

Kiona-Benton school - with permission from district

But the prospect of an energy efficiency grant from the state got the attention of the cash-strapped school district. According to district official Joe Lloyd, the competitive grants “were the impetus for us to stretch our neck out a bit…and find out about the program.”

The district hired Quantum, an energy services company based in Renton, WA, to perform an investment-grade review of energy efficiency opportunities in their K-8 building. Then, based on the auditors’ recommendations the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction gave the district a grant so they could start on the most cost-effective improvements.

A construction crew changed out lights in the building from magnetic ballasts to electronic ones. They replaced all the exterior lighting around the school. They installed new damper motors to control the mix of external and internal air in the classrooms, making heating and cooling much easier and more effective. They replaced the heating and lighting control systems, as well as an aging heat pump in the gym.

  • Kiona-Benton heat pump - with permissionAll told, the upgrades cost a little over $380,000—a pricey prospect for a small school district like Kiona-Benton. But the grant from the state, coupled with a $38,000 rebate offered by the Benton Public Utility District, made the projects affordable. In the end, the district kicked in $150,000, paid for with a low-interest, ten-year loan from the state. The district expects to save nearly $20,000 annually on their energy and maintenance costs, just from one building that holds about 1,000 students.

    The benefits stretched beyond the energy bills. Classroom lighting and comfort have improved. Students can see better, and the air systems have made for better learning conditions. The heating dampers have tempered extremes of hot and cold that afflicted some rooms. And the new exterior lighting “increased safety and security, and the attractiveness of our school,” said Lloyd, and drew compliments from teachers and community members alike.

    Kiona-Benton’s story is unusual today. But it would be more common if voters approved Referendum 52 on this fall’s ballot. R-52 would not only help school districts complete current projects that lack funding, but also inspire school districts—large and small—to take a closer look at ways to save energy. Schools across the state could trim their utility bills, and help clear the backlog of overdue building maintenance projects.

    So what’s next for Kiona-Benton? They’re interested in a super-efficient geothermal heating and cooling system. But since it would take nearly 20 years for the utility savings to pay back the up-front costs, the project may fare poorly in a highly competitive grant pool that awards money based on cost-effectiveness. Which is fine: plenty of other schools in the state still have to catch up to what Kiona-Benton’s already accomplished.

    Photos used with permission from Kiona-Benton school district.