School districts around the province are scraping the bottom and sides of the barrel to find the money to pay BC Hydro’s upcoming nine per cent rate hike.
However, the Cowichan Valley School District is not as badly off as some districts because it has been working hard over several years on systemic changes and new programs to reduce Hydro use in district buildings.
"In 2012/2013, our BC Hydro bill was just over $560,000. So if nothing else changed in our district, the nine per cent rate hike would cost us an extra $50,000 a year," said secretary-treasurer Bob Harper.
"However, the impact of the rate increase will be softened because we have turned the heat down at the closed Somenos, Mill Bay and Yount schools and leased the Koksilah school to VIU and they pay that heating bill. In total, our costs will be some $32,000 lower because of those four schools," he said.
Closing school buildings only means a reduction in heating, not turning it off, so the savings are not total there.
"And expenses still go up, and when you put that alongside an increase in the diesel price or a change in the telephone bill, all of those things. It’s a relentless march," Harper said.
The power-saving programs have brought students from many Valley schools on board to raise awareness of ways to save energy but the total results have brought a smile to Harper’s face, too.
"We’re talking about six figures of savings," he said.
"Starting with the 2008/2009 year we have been aggressively reducing our electricity costs in cooperation with BC Hydro’s Power Smart program. Over the last five years, we have reduced the amount of electricity we use by 27 per cent. In 2012/2013, we would have spent an additional $211,000 on our electricity bill had we not reduced our consumption. Over the five years, we saved a total of $620,000 with our Power Smart program."
"It’s a massive amount of savings," Harper said, crediting a two-pronged attack on energy costs.
One component is the installation of motion sensors that turn heat on and off according to use of a space.
The other component involves human behaviour – getting people to turn off the light switches when they leave a room.
A big factor in this second aspect is how students have taken up the idea of saving energy.
"I’m not downplaying the human behaviour side of it, of the changes we’re hoping to make."
Brian Branting has been leading the Power Smart program for the school district. "BC Hydro has paid for Brian’s wages but they’re decreasing that now. At one time it was 100 per cent coverage if we met certain targets. We couldn’t just do nothing about it," he said. "But, if we met those targets, they paid his wages. Then they reduced that to 50 per cent and I’m not sure of the timing but it will go down to 25 per cent. Part of that is in recognition that when you’ve done certain things at the startup those will continue on. You’re still getting that benefit."
BC Hydro still provides some support outside of the wage component of it.
"They’ve got people who will come in and do training with our students; they’ll come in and sponsor programs. There is other work they’re doing as part of their whole initiative."
The BC School Trustees Association (BCSTA) President Teresa Rezansoff has asked that Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett exempt public schools from the recently announced BC Hydro rate increases or provide an education utility rate to school districts.
Collectively, projected hydro increases will cost boards of education $4,118,000 in 2014/15, and an accumulated cost of $29,465,000 over the next five years.