Greenbrier public schools invest $14M in renewable energy 

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

Behind the joint campus of Western Greenbrier Middle School and Rupert Elementary School, engineers with CMTA have transformed once-empty fields into renewable energy sources. A solar array nearly the size of a football field sits directly beside 81 geothermal wells which are all around 500 feet deep. And that’s just the beginning. 

“This project touches every school in Greenbrier County,” says Jason Tyler, Construction Manager for CMTA. “We’re really proud to be part of it.” 

The details of the energy savings project

Workers string together solar panels behind Rupert Elementary School. Photo by RealWV.

In total, Greenbrier County Schools (GCS) is spending $14 million on the comprehensive energy savings project. They will receive a $2 million credit as part of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and will save $500,000 annually on their utility bills. 

According to GCS, the project includes five facets: 

  1. Comprehensive Analysis: A detailed analysis of all school facility lighting, HVAC systems, and utility costs was conducted over three years to identify improvement opportunities and energy savings.
  2. Geothermal & Solar Power Installation: Solar fields at Western Greenbrier, Rupert Elementary, & Rainelle Elementary Schools. A geothermal well field at Western Greenbrier and Rupert. Combined, these renewable energy sources will allow the school to produce enough of their own energy to run the schools while also selling any additional energy produced back to the grid for a credit which brings down costs at other schools. 
  3. Infrastructure Upgrades: Replacement of outdated HVAC systems, installation of energy-efficient LED lighting, and implementation of energy management control systems across all schools in the county.
  4. Window Replacements: All exterior windows at Greenbrier East High School will be replaced with energy-efficient windows to reduce energy consumption and enhance school safety.
  5. Educational Impact: Beyond financial savings, county school officials say it will serve as a teaching moment for students and allow resources to be redirected from utility bills to direct student services. 

Sarah Wiegand is the lead Engineer for CMTA on the project. “If it’s super sunny and we’re overproducing what we need here at this school, the school is able to get a credit for that in the grid. On a cloudy day, it might just produce enough for this school.”

Tyler adds that efficiency due to new controls will make a major difference as well. “The new controls increase the longevity of your equipment and you don’t waste energy when the building isn’t being used, like in the summer time.” 

Jason Tyler is the Construction Manager for CMTA on the Greenbrier renewable project. Photo by RealWV.

Tyler began running evening shifts in March and plans to complete the entire project by August 8. “That’s our deadline, and we’ve never missed a deadline in 13 years,” he says proudly. “We don’t want to start now.” 

CMTA has made significant progress. The geothermal and solar well fields are complete, except for installation of a safety fence and gravel. The new HVAC units and controllers are being installed now. New windows at Greenbrier East are being installed this summer along with new lighting in all schools. 

Other school systems such as Grant County, Kanawha County, and Berkeley County have also undertaken energy efficiency projects thanks to the IRA, but Greenbrier County’s is the largest CMTA has done thus far. 

“When it’s done, Greenbrier County’s solar field will be the largest in the state that we’ve done,” Tyler says. 

How do the renewable energy systems work? 

Sarah Wiegand is the lead Engineer for CMTA, based out of Louisville, KY, on the Greenbrier County Schools renewable energy program. A teaching module by the school’s entrance will allow educators to teach students about the renewable energy powering their school. Photo by RealWV.

Wiegand likens geothermal energy usage to a battery, saying, “Basically we are using the earth to either deposit or extract heat. I like to think of it like a battery. In the summer, we take all the heat from the building and charge it in the earth. In the winter, we drain the battery and we take heat from the ground inside.” 

This requires heat pumps in each classroom of Rupert Elementary and Western Greenbrier, which will be installed this summer. 

“It’s a closed water system,” Tyler explains, “so once we close it off there’s really no maintenance.” 

Similarly, he says the solar field does not require any regular maintenance. The panels absorb energy, run it through an inverter, and then uses it as the building needs it for appliances, lighting, etc. 

“Unless you have a ground fault issue,” Tyler adds, “which you will be able to monitor constantly, there’s no maintenance.” 

Why renewables? 

Photo by RealWV.

Western Greenbrier County has long been home to several coal mines. Officials say this development is meant not to replace traditional energy sources but to diversify, save money, and preserve the planet for the future. 

“We are dedicated to improving our facilities in fiscally responsible and environmentally sustainable ways,” says Superintendent Jeff Bryant. “This project not only represents a significant investment in our infrastructure but also demonstrates our commitment to future generations by reducing our environmental footprint and ensuring the longevity of our schools.”

“I always knew I wanted to do a career in sustainability that had the future of our planet in mind,” says Wiegand. “CMTA really gives me that opportunity to pursue projects where i can use renewable energy. We do a mix of traditional energy and renewables, but this gives us an opportunity to make a positive impact for future generations.” 

Chief School Business Official David McClure states, “This comprehensive project will benefit students and reduce overall operating costs so we can redirect those resources to educating students.”

Both GCS and CMTA also believe the project holds educational value. A solar teaching module has been included by the entrance to Rupert Elementary. 

“Rupert and Western Greenbrier students  can come out here, touch it, see how it works, and see on the TV screen we’ve set up what it’s doing,” says Tyler. “We’ve done several presentations with the students along the way. That’s why we do this. To educate the kids.”

“This is the first time I’ve gotten to do the teaching module at a project,” Wiegand adds. “The kids are excited! The teachers are too! It was super cool to see them so engaged. They wanted to learn more about not only the project but our career paths too.”

A new HVAC unit is lowered onto the roof of Western Greenbrier Middle School as part of an energy savings program adopted by Greenbrier County Schools. Photo by RealWV.

NOTE: This story was updated on July 10 to reflect the correct spelling of Sarah Wiegand’s name, previously reported as “Wiegman.”

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