What is ‘energy-positive’ and what does it mean for our new schools?

When FirstFloor Energy Positive CEO Robbie Ferris first approached the Horry County school board in 2014, he pitched five schools that could create 40 percent more energy than they consumed, meaning potentially no energy bill for the schools.

Now, three years later, the schools being built won’t generate that amount of energy. Not because of Ferris, he says, but because the school board didn’t ask for it.

Writing the RFP

With the help of district staff, school board attorneys wrote the Request for Proposals, which listed the requirements for new energy-positive schools.

The RFP defined energy-positive as “the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis is less than the amount of renewable energy created on the site” and not measured by financial cost. Meaning, the RFP didn’t require the new schools to create 40 percent more energy as Ferris first proposed.

Horry County school board chair Joe DeFeo said in hindsight he would have preferred a more stringent energy requirement.

“Looking back, I would have preferred that we put a requirement in to the original motion that would have kept it at a minimum of 20 percent over because once you build an energy-positive building, the only thing you’re adding is solar panels and that’s the only additional cost,” DeFeo said. “At that point, it’s cheap additional power.”

The Sun News has requested access to who school board attorneys consulted while writing the RFP, but the Freedom of Information Act request for billing records associated with this has not been granted.

Prior to the FOIA request, DeFeo voluntarily released some of the attorney billing records.

“I asked if they were of any concern to being FOIAable [Sic] and I was told ‘No,’ so I was told it was okay,” said DeFeo. “I would have made the argument that what I released to you was public information.”

$2 million for more energy

Ferris said that if the district had asked for it, he would have built schools that produced 40 percent more energy than they consumed by installing more solar panels for an additional $2.4 million total for all five schools.

If the panels were purchased today, it would cost an additional $2 million.

But his bid would have been uncompetitive had he included the additional panels in the current schools, he said.

“Our price would have been $2 million higher than everyone else’s because we knew everyone else was going to follow the RFP,” Ferris said. “So if we spent $2 million more, we would have been $2 million higher on our price and that probably would have meant we wouldn’t have gotten the jobs.”

Ferris’ $220 million proposal was the most expensive option of the final three builders. Measuring by cost-per-square-foot, his proposal, he said, was the second-highest bid, costing more than M.B. Kahn’s proposal and less than Thompson Turner’s proposal.

The other firms left out items in their proposal and did not comply with some of the standards that the district had asked for, Ferris said.

“They wrote this incredibly rigorous RFP,” Ferris said. “From my perspective, there were some things in the RFP that I thought were unnecessary, but they were also trying to come up with some standards that forced everyone to propose something similar. So I think that they did a pretty decent job of doing that.”

When will the schools be energy-positive?

FirstFloor’s contract gives the company three years to make the schools energy-positive.

According to information from a FOIA request, the school district, based on energy numbers provided by FirstFloor, is budgeting for the schools to consume more energy than they produce in the first year.

“The hope is by the third year they’re generating more power than they consume,” Ferris said.

The schools will be operated by FirstFloor for three years, Ferris said, so the schools’ energy performance will be optimized and adjusted during the first two years.

“They will generate 7 to 10 percent more power than they consume according to our energy models and I feel confident that that’s going to happen,” he said.

Christian Boschult: 843-626-0218, @TSN_Christian