The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 8, 2013

Conneaut school seeks energy upgrade as wind power bombs

Star Beacon

CONNEAUT —  Board of Education members will seek quotes for replacing electric boilers in Conneaut Middle School with natural gas versions, an indication Conneaut Area City Schools may be ready to pull the plug on its experiment with wind power.

At a work session Thursday afternoon, the board authorized the Brewer-Garrett Company to devise a project cost for the proposed boiler conversion. At the same time, the mechanical engineering firm will examine a masonry chimney and metal roof that need attention at Conneaut High School.

A few years ago, Brewer-Garrett conducted an energy overhaul of buildings in the Conneaut Area City Schools system it guaranteed would save the district money in utility bills. Part of the upgrade was the installation of natural gas-fired boilers at some buildings to replace electric-powered versions.

Left out of the boiler switch, however, was CMS, because the school is tethered to a large wind turbine erected by NexGen Energy Solutions of Boulder, Colo. The turbine, built in January 2010, was expected to provide the school electricity at a rate that beats FirstEnergy's prices. However, the generator has never performed as billed and for more than a year has been completely inactive.

Repairs to the turbine await the outcome of a lawsuit NexGen has filed against the manufacturer. In an interview late last year, a company executive said the litigation probably won't be resolved anytime soon. Rather than wait for the legal dust to settle, the board is now mulling a middle school makeover along the lines of its other buildings.

David Smith of Brewer-Garrett said Thursday a switch to natural gas would be prudent. The change-over would cost an estimated $142,000 to complete, but over 15 years could save the district $203,000 — more if the cost of natural gas keeps dropping.

"(The retrofit) would pay for itself," Smith said.

The energy-efficiency program that installed new lights, insulation and fixtures in district buildings was fueled in part by an incentive program — mainly attractive lending opportunities — offered by the state. The middle school boiler project could qualify for the incentive program, but not if the CHS repairs are added, Smith said. Even so, money saved on heating costs at the middle school could be used to help finance the high school work, he said.

At the time, the middle school turbine project —- along with a smaller sibling NexGen erected to serve the city's sewage treatment plant — was touted as one of Ohio's top energy initiatives of the year. The turbines were erected at no cost, as long as the school district and city agreed to buy some of the power they produce for 10 years. The middle school turbine was expected to provide about 40 percent of the building's needs.

But while the treatment plant turbine has worked without a hitch, the middle school generator rarely worked more than a few weeks without a breakdown. NexGen, in its lawsuit, says the Indian company that made the turbine produced a machine that ultimately did not meet NexGen's specifications.

The high school chimney is part of the original building and decades old. An inspection of the school roof discovered some of the masonry is weak and crumbling, said Superintendent Kent Houston. The roof that needs attention was installed as part of a school expansion project in the 1980s, officials have said.