Imagine investing in the construction of a brand-new correction facility, only to discover the energy costs to run said facility climbing upward of $25,000 per month. Even then, comfort levels for inmates and employees alike would be elusive at best — downright frigid at worst.
That’s where inmates and staff in Jasper County, Ind., found themselves when the county built a new jail in 2008. From the beginning, the county experienced nothing but problems with the heating and cooling system and overall energy consumption. According to Pat Williamson, Jasper County sheriff, the temperatures in some offices never reached above 50 degrees.
“I was a detective at the time,” said Williamson, “and we were constantly dealing with poor heat in offices and cells.” The building was so inefficient, in fact, that providing extra blankets for inmates became a regular occurrence during cold winter months.
Multiple efforts to solve the problem, including swapping the electric heating and cooling system to a boiler and then natural gas, yielded little improvement. “The poor insulation and low quality of windows and door seals,” said Williamson, “made it difficult for any heating system, no matter how good it was, to keep up with the need.” The facility was so drafty, in fact, even the best system would struggle.
That’s when the county hired a TRANE consultant, who conducted a full energy audit to assess the problem. Through the audit, contractors could tell where the facility was losing air. As a result, they were able to make calculated recommendations for improved efficiencies. These improvements included spraying additional insulation foam where needed, sealing windows and doors and upgrading to LED lighting.
And while these improvements were extremely helpful, they were just the beginning of the county’s journey from energy drain to energy gain. “Our building was so inefficient,” said Williamson, “that it was becoming a real drain for the taxpayer. Our county commissioners wanted to offset the jail’s energy needs even further.” And that’s why they decided to bring solar power into the picture.
“The energy consumption at the jail meshes nicely with solar power,” said Williamson, “considering that the number of people working during the day far exceeds those working at night.” In addition, inmates take fewer showers during the evening and nighttime hours, and the lights are typically dimmed.
“The real energy use occurs during the day,” he said.
The county invested $1.2 million in a 3.5-acre solar array, with the goal of producing up to an average of 50% of the jail’s energy use needs.
In conjunction with this solar project, the jail was able to install a new software system that enables the jail commander to raise and lower temperatures at any given time and check other factors such as weather conditions, the brightness of the sun and exactly what the solar array is producing at any given time. During summer days, for example, the solar array can produce up to 190% of the jail’s energy consumption, sending the surplus energy back into the grid.
For example, in mid-summer, the array produced 635 kW of energy. The jail was only using 213 kW of energy at the time, so 422 kW went back to the grid. And while the sun doesn’t always shine in this northern Indiana county, the average energy produced versus energy consumed certainly adds up over time.
“We anticipate the system to pay for itself in the next 15 years,” said Williamson.
Installing the new system took time, which meant that whole sections of the jail were without heat for up to a day at a time in order to bring the new system online. It was a true test of the new energy-efficient initiatives — a test the jail passed with flying colors.
“Solar was one of the last steps to be completed,” said Williamson. “We were able to monitor cells blocks during the transition period, and heat loss was very minimal. We were very surprised and very comforted by the fact that the building didn’t lose its energy.”
One final step remains in this comprehensive energy overhaul: planting a pollinator field. Williamson explained, “If you don’t cultivate the acreage of the solar array, weeds will grow and block the sun.” Pollinator plants, however, are low in height and help the bees pollinate the area at the same time, creating a win-win scenario.
In fact, win-win is a great way to describe the entire upgrade. Certainly, the energy improvements to the Jasper County Jail were a rousing success, keeping staff and inmates comfortable while giving back to the community at the same time.