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Paynesville Press - May 23, 2001

School closes due to energy demands

By Michael Jacobson

An early school closing in Minnesota normally means icy roads, numbing temperatures, or heavy snowfalls. . .not 95-degree May days with sunshine and the first feel of summer heat.

Paynesville, however, was one of five school districts in central Minnesota to close school early on Tuesday, May 15, when the unseasonably warm weather led to an electricity-using peak.

Like 700 schools in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, the Paynesville Area School District participates in Xcel Energy's peak-controlled rates program. The voluntary program offers customers lower rates if they agree to manage their usage load at peak times, explained Ed Legge, a spokesman for Xcel Energy.

Hot temperatures mean peak usage in Minnesota. Air conditioning units are turned on and run, requiring lots of power, said Legge.

Xcel Energy had two days of peak usage last year when it asked customers to limit their electricity consumption and six the year before. "Usually it happens in the summertime," said Legge. "What's remarkable about this is it happened in May."

The Paynesville Area School District has been on the program for ten years, and last Tuesday was only the second time school closed to reduce the district's power usage. The other happened in September ten years ago, right after the district joined the program, according to Lew Storkamp, the district's building and grounds supervisor.

The district can use 35kW at the elementary school and 50kW at the middle and high school building during the peak times, when notified by Xcel Energy. Storkamp figured those numbers to include basic services like refrigeration, etc. and enough power to run the offices in the summer. Each school site has a monitoring device to check the electricity usage.

Should a school exceed the load it agreed to, it would have to pay a penalty for additional usage. Some schools did elect to pay a penalty and stay open, said Legge.

Paynesville opted to close, as getting the students and staff out of the building was the only sure way to reduce electricity usage, said Storkamp.

School was dismissed around 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, and afternoon classes were missed. The half day will not need to be made up, said superintendent Howard Caldwell.

In exchange for reducing its electricity consumption, the school district saves on its power rates. Legge said the program can provide rates savings between 30 and 60 percent. The school district saves between $13,000 and $18,000 per year by participating in the program, according to Storkamp.

Storkamp feels he has the district on a minimal power allotment, in order to reap maximum savings in electrical rates.

"The reason we're on this program is to save money on the cost of energy for our school," said Caldwell. "And hopefully focus the dollars we save on education."

With finances tighter than ever, Caldwell and Storkamp expect the district to continue with the program, but it may be another decade before students get another sunny day off from school.

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