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Going green costs a lot of the green stuff

February 15, 2013

It might be Walpole’s first new “green” building, but annual utility costs for the new Walpole library are shaping up to be higher than those of the old library, at least in the first year.

But Library Trustee and Permanent Building Committee member David Wildnauer says residents should know that the building is more energy-efficient than other conventional buildings of its size and type of use, and that the higher costs can be easily explained.

Walpole Town Administrator Michael Boynton has proposed appropriating $60,000 for the library’s utility costs in his FY 2014 budget, up significantly from only $25,000 per year when the library was located at its previous Common Street location.

The new LEED-certified library on School Street was approved by town voters in a 2009 Proposition 2.5 debt exclusion override, by a margin of just nine votes. In the months leading up to that vote, project advocates repeatedly talked up its “green” features, but never mentioned that annual operating costs would still be higher than the old library.

A big reason for the hike in costs is the new library’s larger size and increased use over the old facility, Wildnauer said. The library is almost double the size of the old library.

Utility costs in the first year are also likely to be an anomaly, Wildnauer says, because the new library was occupied before it was totally finished and many of the energy-efficient features, such as the HVAC system and lighting, were not fully operational or optimized by the time of its opening.

“The photovoltaic power system was not started until mid-summer, therefore the best couple of months for solar power generation were lost for 2012,” Wildnauer pointed out. “These savings would show up on the electric bill.”

Other factors, such as weather conditions, have an impact on utility costs, making it difficult to predict what future operating costs of the library will be. But he noted he “would not be surprised [if] the new building costs more to operate than the older one.”

“I can not predict what next year’s operating costs will be, or the year after that,” Wildnauer said. “There is insufficient data to make any prediction,” he said.

Wildnauer also said that while the building’s electrical costs themselves are higher than the old building, the costs are being shifted from other expenses.

One example is that the building is heated and cooled with a geothermal system that utilizes electrically-powered heat pumps. This translates into increased electrical costs, but those costs are offset by savings in conventional fuel. The library’s natural gas bill is handled by the Walpole DPW, and is not a part of the library’s operating budget, according to Wildnauer.

Wildnauer, who is also an architect and joined the Library Trustees in 2011, said that the building had to meet a number of standards to be LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.)

In order to meet the criteria, the building design had to be “demonstrated to meet a slate of performance requirements set forth by the U.S. Green Building Council in the general categories of sustainable site, energy & atmosphere, water efficiency, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality,” according to Wildnauer.

“This is a lengthy and time-consuming process of record-keeping and reporting, and results in a significant increase to the architect’s fee, [since] it is the architect who manages the process and does all the reporting,” he said.

Among the building’s sustainable features, according to Wildnauer, are solar panels, a geothermal energy system, waterless urinals, and recycled building materials. Other often less-appreciated features, such as the library’s location near mass transit, also count toward LEED certification.

Wildnauer, who calls himself an advocate for green buildings, says that when the Library Trustees first proposed a new “green” library several years ago, before he joined, he felt the Trustees didn’t seem to understand what “green” meant.

His “suspicions that the idea had been bandied about without any research or true understanding” led him to join the Permanent Building Committee in 2009, he said.

Those suspicions “turned out certainly to be true,” he said.

As a member of the PBC, Wildnauer advocated for a sustainable building, and was helped by the fact that the Mass. Board of Library Commissioners was offering a 5 percent bonus – $139,000 – to the town’s $3.8 million construction grant, on the condition that the building be LEED-certified. That money was more than enough to pay for the significant cost of certification, primarily architectural and engineering fees, with extra money still left over and available for the rest of the building.

The Walpole Library offers a good lesson for taxpayers next time town officials propose building a new facility. Even if a new building is “green,” it doesn’t mean it will be cheaper to operate than the building it is replacing.

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