Washougal schools manager honored for conservation efforts

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Jessica Beehner, the Washougal School District’s facilities, maintenance and grounds manager, is being honored by the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE)’s Columbia River chapter for her commitment to energy conservation and sustainability.

The AEE recently presented Beehner with its 2023 Commercial Wrench of the Year award, which the Association says is given annually to individuals “that best exemplify the spirit of hard work, hands-on responsibility and determination that resulted in successful implementation of an energy efficiency project.”

Beehner, who has led the Washougal School District’s maintenance teams since the summer of 2021, said she didn’t even know she had been nominated for the award.

“I was very surprised. I didn’t even know that I had been nominated for it,” Beehner said. “But I was very honored. I struggle with the spotlight. I was just doing my job, but I’m glad that people that I work with understand the struggles and the things that we’re working on here and the good work that we’re doing, and I appreciate the acknowledgement of that.”

Kristen Ige, treasurer for the AAE’s Columbia River chapter, said the group chose Beehner for the award “due to her strong leadership and unwavering commitment” to Clark Public Utilities’ Strategic Energy Management program.

“This past year, (Beehner) worked with the school board to propose the district’s first ever energy policy, sought utility funding for LEDs and implemented various low-cost (and) no-cost energy opportunities,” Ige said. “(Beehner) understands the importance of communicating with and including the broader school district staff, students and families in energy efficiency efforts to achieve long-term and sustainable Strategic Energy Management success. She exemplifies the Wrench of the Year award.”

Beehner said she believes the Washougal School District could eventually be viewed as a regional or even state leader in energy efficiency, conservation and green initiatives.

“I think it could be attainable,” Beehner said. “It’s not something we’re going to get overnight, but I would love it if we had a reputation of focusing on (as many) green things and efficiencies as we can.”

She added that, since Washington state is focusing on getting commercial buildings up to the state’s new efficiency standards over the next few years, “to be known locally as a leader on that front would be amazing, especially because we have such a small team. I’m so proud of the stuff that we are able to get done.”

Washougal School District Director of Communications and Technology Les Brown said Beehner has worked diligently to implement energy efficiency and conservation programs that will “save the district money and reduce its use of natural gas, fuel oil and electricity in our school facilities.”

He added that Beehner has developed relationships with the district’s utility providers, which have helped her to develop conservation projects that have improved safety and exterior lighting while reducing electrical demand and energy costs.

“My two maintenance guys and I are part of a program called Strategic Energy Management. The three of us participate with that through Clark Public Utilities. And then we also (work) with Northwest Natural Gas as well,” Beehner said. “The utilities are really trying to give us money and help with these upgrades because they know the equipment costs a lot, we don’t have a large budget, what it’s going to do for the environment, what it’s going to do for savings, what it’s going to do to the whole grid. They’re definitely huge supporters for me and the school district.

Beehner said she tries to stay abreast of the latest incentives available for energy efficient programs.

“I try to keep up on everything, but I might miss an email about an incentive for a heat pump upgrade because I was working on a pesticide application or an inspection,” Beehner said. “Having those good partnerships, knowing that those people will reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you saw this, but I want to make sure you guys are aware,’ is very, very helpful, and a huge benefit to me and the district as a whole.”

Over the past two years, Beehner has partnered with Clark Public Utilities to provide district homeowners with LED lights at no cost; led an energy management assessment of Washougal High School to identify changes that will result in energy savings; and spearheaded an effort funded by a Clark Public Utilities grant to replace and upgrade the vast majority of the external lighting at Hathaway and Gause elementary schools and Washougal High School, the football scoreboard at Fishback Stadium and the school district’s bus barn.

“We bring these professional engineers out, and the whole point is to find low-cost or no-cost ways to reduce energy, which is going to obviously save us money on our utility bills,” Beehner said. “There are always bigger projects that get identified, but that’s not the goal of it. It’s to help us add some things in or be more mindful when we’re talking about long range planning.”

Beehner and her team members, Shaun Humes and Jerry Adams, have conditioned themselves to view every project, no matter how large or small, as an opportunity to make the district more energy-efficient.

“I’ve gotten (Humes and Adams) into any kind of webinars I can, just trying to make sure that if they’re working on preventative maintenance on something and a motor goes down, they ask, ‘Do we replace it, or is there a now a new, efficient model or something better to get?’” Beehner said. “I try to keep them (up-to-date) on changing technologies or the training sessions that are available so they’re mindful of those things when we’re making every purchase. Little by little, those things will start adding up and start saving us money.”

Beehner also encourages Humes and Adams to approach her with ideas to reduce energy costs, because, she said, in her mind, “No idea is a terrible idea.”

“Sometimes they receive answers that they don’t want to hear, but that doesn’t stop them from asking the questions,” Beehner said. “I just send an email (to the appropriate agency) and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re looking at. Does this by chance qualify for anything? And the worst thing they can do is say ‘no.’”