Dr. Larry Freise, Assistant Superintendent of Business at Lancaster School District, is reticent to take credit for the success of his district’s energy program, despite admitting to being a “team of one” when it comes to bringing new projects to the table. In this conversation, we learn about Larry’s approach to growing, maintaining and improving the renewable energy performance at their schools. Larry shares insights on how to move the needle by keeping an eye on innovation in his conversation with Phil, Ali, and Emily of TerraVerde Energy. He explains a pragmatic decision-making approach that prioritizes the needs of the community his district serves.

Key takeaways:

  • Why considering community impact is crucial to the success of energy programs at schools.
  • How to leverage federal funding and new technology to improve classroom experience.
  • Measure twice, cut once! The value of independent analysis in project decision making.

With that, let’s get into the conversation!

Phil: Larry, thanks for being willing to Power Chat with us today. We’re excited to learn about some of the successes you’ve overseen in your district.  

Larry: Thanks Phil! 

Phil: I’m curious to hear how your district values renewable energy efforts. Have those efforts been met with approval or have you struggled to get buy-in?  

Larry: When I came into my current position, the solar panels were in place and the district was just starting to explore the option of batteries to make our Prop 39 calculation work. I don’t think the board trumpets “the green” as much as they could, but the way I see it, I can continue to be the advocate for green while also spearheading decisions that save the district money. 

Phil: That’s great, and it’s probably worth noting that you’re not getting any negative pushback or any challenges, so sometimes no news is good news.  

Larry: Absolutely. There’s a sister district who installed a system right across from a neighborhood very close to where I live. And it upset the community to the point that they got them taken down. With every renewable energy decision, you also have to consider the impact on the community. Everybody here appreciates our solar covers because they’re not intrusive in any way. The staff love them because they get shaded parking. And in the desert, shaded parking is a pretty cool thing.  

Phil: Speaking of the community—the stakeholders of the district, parents, people that live in the Lancaster area—do you feel that they value sustainability or is it something that is still catching on there? 

I think the concept of “green energy” is an afterthought to them. But I always try to be forward-thinking while still keeping the community in mind – Larry

Larry: Our community is one of need. They just don’t want to see their power or water get shut off. They’re focused on putting food on the table. So, I think the concept of “green energy” is an afterthought to them. But I always try to be forward-thinking while still keeping the community in mind; for instance, we did an analysis, with the help of TerraVerde, for electric charging, that showed the project would not be financially feasible without the assistance of grants. So, in that case, I decided to put a pause on it until someone at the state, municipal or public utilities level threw out some grant money to bring down the associated costs, so that the people using it feel like, “hey, this is comparable to what a supercharger might be at the mall or at my house.” 

Phil: Well, we’re happy to have had a hand in that analysis, so thanks for those comments. We work with districts across the state, and everyone’s a little different on how they manage their renewable energy programs. Who is the team that supports your efforts and helps the district arrive at energy-related decisions? 

Larry: That would be me! I’m the one that plants the seed in people’s heads. I planted the idea of the chargers to my superintendent. He kind of brushed it off, but I continued to do the research. When we needed to upgrade thermostats I said, let’s go towards a net-based system so we can have single management and single control. They kind of take my lead and of course our architect has energy designers with him. Once we actually have a working system, we rely upon whatever company produces that unit to train our people. 

Ali: I’m curious, if somebody was stepping into your role, what advice would you give to that person on how to initiate these types of decisions as a team of one?  

Do not rely on vendors selling the equipment…have an independent engineer do the analysis to show whether it’s feasible – Larry

Larry: I would caution them not to rely upon the vendors selling the equipment to be the ones to sell you on the concept. I learned a great deal about that from Matt Zerega, (Director of Fleet Electrification Consulting at TerraVerde). I still get hounded by these guys with these charging systems. But I know what the bottom line is, because Matt did such a great analysis. So, I would recommend that anybody who is going to be pitched something new have an independent engineer do the analysis to show whether it’s feasible, sustainable and makes sense for your district.  

Phil: Looking down the line, as you consider incentive funding and opportunities, do you have anything on your wish list as far as energy, renewable energy and sustainability? 

Larry: I think in terms of generation, we’re about where we should be. But there are other things we can do to reduce our energy footprint. For example, some of our HVAC units are 30 and 40 years old, and the new ones are far more efficient. So, we tapped into federal government money to invest in an upgrade that otherwise would have been prohibitively expensive. That’s what my biggest responsibility is; to look at ways to kill two or three birds with one stone. Everybody can feel good about that. Why is my electric bill low? Because Larry Freise had the idea to tap into those federal dollars that they say can improve air quality. I know our energy footprint is lower because we had the foresight to see that this was a great way to spend what ended up being, for our district, $140 million in federal money. 

Ali: What about electric school buses? This is the next big thing that has captured the imagination of the market, broadly speaking, but a lot of schools have concerns about them. How do you think about it? 

Larry: I have a lot of thoughts about it. We have a JPA that serves three districts, and they live and die by grants, especially to the Air and Resource Board. So they’re constantly getting grants to get ride of these old dirty diesel buses. There are some companies that are simply taking the chassis of the diesel and natural gas buses, swapping out the engine and putting in the batteries without really giving it a thought—and we just saw tremendous failures. But there’s one company called BYD, whose production facility is in Lancaster. They started by building a battery factory and now they’re producing electric buses from the ground up. These things are amazing, because not only do they meet all the standards we expected in a school bus, but they also function in the desert, hotter than Hades, and we can complete our routes. It’s tough in our valley because some of the routes are 60 miles out, 60 miles back. We pick up one kid that goes out to the Ventura County border. So initially I think our electric buses will mostly do retail stuff, but that’s fine. I mean, if I could take a diesel off the road and replace it with an electric bus? We’ll do that all day long. And again, 90 percent of the cost is picked up by grant money. So, I’m working with Edison to build the charging stations that run on solar, knowing that 10 years down the road, most of our fleet will probably be electric. 

Emily: Very exciting! We can’t wait to hear an update once those buses are added to your fleet. Finally, Larry, during your time at Lancaster SD, how would you describe your philosophy for continually moving the needle forward on renewable energy in your district?  

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – Seneca

Larry: I just read as much as possible. I always pay attention to smart solutions that address a problem where we don’t have to go after people’s behaviors, because that’s where change is really hard for a multitude of reasons. When I first came into this position and saw the capabilities of smart batteries, I thought it was so innovative. When it is hot, people all turn on their air conditioning at roughly the same time. And that just destroys the peak on demand. But battery shaving, that does it automatically. That’s ingenious! So we implemented the technology to address that issue and nobody skipped a beat. Nobody thought twice about it, because we didn’t impact anybody’s operation. I can’t speak to the next person who will sit in this chair. But I can say there will at least be one guy out in the district who might throw that information their way and say “Hey, we need to take a look at this.” 

Ali: You know, someone might say, “Oh, well, you guys got lucky. You had solar early. You have BYD in your backyard.” But if you dig into this interview, what I’m hearing you say, Larry, is that because you have this thirst for research, you’ve readied yourself. Because you have this lens on, when opportunities come, they hit your radar and you jump on them.  

Larry: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think in some ways you do create your own luck. I mean, you think about those batteries. Very complicated advanced software. The fear is that the software might end up being an epic failure and won’t produce like it was supposed to. I mean, that would have been bad luck. But then again, if I had a bad feeling about it, I never would have signed on. You guys pointed me in the direction of other people who were using it successfully, so that I had a certain comfort level to say, yeah, this will work for us too. And it did.