Flirt with natural gas may end steam heat

CHANGE IN THE WIND ¿ Citing a potential annual savings of $50,000, the Rome school district may abandon steam heat from this energy facility at Griffiss Park and switch to natural gas. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

Sentinel staff writer

The Rome school district may switch from steam to natural gas for heating at Rome Free Academy, which would halt service from a utility company that the district has taken to court in a separate tax-break dispute.

The move would save the district at least $50,000 a year, says Superintendent Jeffrey P. Simons, adding that the potential change is not "necessarily in response to issues" with the pending legal action in state Supreme Court against the Griffiss Utility Service Corporation. The district is analyzing costs as part of its overall "gathering information" on its service with GUSC, he added.

However, GUSC President and CEO Dan Maneen today questioned the savings estimates over the long term, as

well as the timing of the possible switch. He noted that GUSC has been providing steam for RFA’s Griffiss park building since it opened nearly 10 years ago, and "it seems like they’d been happy...until the last couple of weeks." While he would not comment directly on the legal matters, he asked "it is coincidental...the timing?" and wondered about "that parallel."

The Board of Education’s buildings and grounds committee reviewed the matter Wednesday, and no decisions were made on whether to launch the change. It will be discussed further by the board’s finance committee, said Simons.

Using natural gas to heat RFA would be a simple move, board members were told, because the school was built with two natural gas boilers as a backup system. The boilers periodically are used for limited periods such as if the steam is temporarily offline, said Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds Paul Rabbia. When Simons asked "how long would it take" for a conversion if there is a switch to natural gas, Rabbia said it essentially would involve "flip a up and running."

Board President Patricia Riedel commented "a lot of places are looking to put gas in versus the steam," and board member Paul Hagerty similarly said "a number of people have converted to gas" usage. Some members remarked that what may have made sense for the district several years ago may no longer be so. RFA opened in 2002.

There has been a "short-term" memorandum of agreement with GUSC regarding the steam, said Simons. There also could be a "capacity charge" not related to direct usage, but Simons said "we don’t think that’s the case."

The estimated $50,000 annual savings to use natural gas at RFA would be the "equivalent of a teacher," said Simons. The district has faced eliminating some teaching positions for budget-cutting moves in recent years.

Natural gas is used to heat all of the district’s other schools except for the former Fort Stanwix building, which uses steam but not via GUSC, said Rabbia. Specific district costs for the steam supplied to RFA were not immediately available.

From GUSC’s standpoint, Maneen estimated that the district could pay from about 50 to 80 cents a square foot for the steam at RFA depending on such variable as usage and the cost of natural gas used by GUSC to generate the steam. He said RFA comprises about 310,000 square feet, so those rates could equate to about $160,000-$250,000 a year.

Regarding the district’s estimated savings for using natural gas instead of steam, Maneen asked "based on what?" and referred to the many uncertainties that can affect pricing for the commodity and "no one has control over" them. If the district knows future natural gas prices, it "should be in the gas business" because "no one else does" know the upcoming prices,he remarked. He added, "I do this 24/7," and projections of possible savings should be based only "on any given day" due to the market volatility that can develop.

Overall, Maneen said he would not try to interpret "how a decision is made by a school board or the reason for it." Asked about it in relation to the district’s court action against GUSC, he said "I can’t comment on the legal situation....You never know....I would not speculate."

The district recently launched an Article 78 legal proceeding in state Supreme Court against GUSC and the county Industrial Development Agency. The district opposes a new 25-year tax-free agreement for GUSC that follows a prior 10-year tax-free break. The district has estimated it would receive over $2.5 million in revenues over the 25-year period if GUSC properties were fully taxed.

@Body.10. no-hyphen:The district later also named the City of Rome and Assessor Joseph Surace as a party to the legal action, because of what it said was the city’s unclear position on the issue. District officials had anticipated the city would join it in the case, but city Corporation Counsel Diane Martin-Grande has said the city could not be in a legal position opposite of its own assessor; she said Surace, based on state real property tax laws, left the GUSC property in an exempt status under the agreement put in place by the IDA.

GUSC provides services including heat and electricity for various employer sites at Griffiss park. It operates a 26-mile steam-pipe network that brings steam heat to numerous buildings there. The school district claims the IDA has provided no proof of need for the tax-free break that it approved for GUSC.