Trane wins Sarasota County contract for energy audit and initial design work for new Central Energy Plant

Timeline calls for late 2019 completion of facility to supply air conditioning to county buildings in downtown Sarasota, including the jail

A graphic shows the facilities served by the Central Energy Plant in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Although Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio raised a number of questions about the process during a late June discussion, he made the motion on Oct. 31 to approve a $412,500 contract with Trane U.S. for an investment-grade energy audit that will mark the first step in the process of replacing the county’s aging Central Energy Plant.

With Commissioner Charles Hines seconding the motion, it passed unanimously during the board’s regular meeting in Sarasota.

As he has in the past, on Oct. 31, Maio referenced the board’s key concern in regard to the functioning of the facility in downtown Sarasota, as the plant provides air conditioning for a number of county buildings: What happens if the jail is full, Maio asked, and the cooling equipment fails?

Maio then questioned Jeff Lowdermilk, director of the county’s General Services Department, about the timeline for replacing the plant, if the board approved the Trane contract that day. “Is this … the fastest and best timeline for this?”

“Yes, sir,” Lowdermilk replied. If staff abandoned the energy audit process and reverted to a traditional method to build a new Central Energy Plant, that would add about nine months to the timeline, Lowdermilk said.

The energy audit should take four months to complete, Lowdermilk told the board. Then staff anticipates an extra two months will be needed for Trane to wrap up 30% of the schematic design and engineering work for the new plant. If the board agrees to a subsequent contract with Trane to continue with the project, Lowdermilk explained, it should take about six more months to finish the design, with 12 months estimated for construction. That would put the new plant coming online in the fall of 2019, he said, or in the very early part of the county’s 2020 fiscal year. (Each fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.)

Lowdermilk also explained that if the board does employ Trane for the entire new Central Energy Plant project, the county’s energy cost savings must exceed the $412,500 in the initial contract. “Trane will guarantee those savings,” Lowdermilk pointed out, but the County Commission would have final say on which energy-efficiency steps it wanted the firm to pursue.

Jeff Lowdermilk. File photo

Lowdermilk noted that under the terms of the contract before the board that day, Trane would analyze 73 county facilities encompassing 1.9 million square feet in an effort to identify steps staff could take to reduce energy expenses.

The contract also will encompass a site selection analysis for a new Central Energy Plant (CEP); preparation of a not-to-exceed budget for the project; and an economic analysis of ownership alternatives of the facility, Lowdermilk added.

In late June, Lowdermilk estimated the cost of the audit would be between $350,000 and $500,000.

Pressed in June about whether pursuit of the months-long audit indicated the replacement of the Central Energy Plant no longer was as urgent as staff previously had indicated, Lowdermilk explained that pursuing a state-approved process with the acronym ESCO “gives us insight into different models, something that we would have a difficult time assessing ourselves.”

The Florida Statutes allow a charter county, such as Sarasota, to engage in such an energy service company (ESCO) process, Lowdermilk pointed out.

The bid the county advertised earlier this year for the ESCO process says that among its scope of work, the company winning the contract would collect information such as size, age, construction type, condition and general use of the county’s facilities. Additionally, it would collect and summarize utility cost and consumption data for the most recent 24- to 36-month period.

Dealing with the worries

During an Oct. 10, 2016 discussion, then-Chief County Engineer Isaac Brownman had talked about the fact that the Central Energy Plant’s age made it difficult for staff to find parts to service it. Four of the key components of the plant were installed in 1997, Brownman told the board in October 2015; two of those had end-of-life expectations as of 2017.

A graphic explains the operations of the Central Energy Plant and shows its location in Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When he appeared before the board in October 2016, Brownman noted that in October 2015, one chiller was down for maintenance when a second one suffered an equipment failure. “We were hours away from all downtown buildings [on the system] overheating.”

At that time, cost estimates for a new CEP ranged between $14.5 million and $20 million, he pointed out. However, Brownman also explained in October 2016, the ESCO process could lead to a dramatic reduction in the expense of a new plant, thanks to exploration of the potential for a fully private or a public/private partnership for its construction.

When Chair Paul Caragiulo sought clarification on Oct. 31 that the board would vote on whether it wanted to proceed with Trane to handle the building of the new Central Energy Plant, Lowdermilk told him, “That is correct.” Lowdermilk said he anticipated coming back to the commission in the spring of 2018 to address that.

Trane was one of three firms that a county Professional Services Review Committee recommended make oral presentations to county staff during the ESCO bid process this summer. The others were FPL Services and Honeywell. Following those sessions, on July 18, the committee ranked Trane first.

In an Oct. 23 email responding to a Sarasota News Leader question about the ESCO endeavor, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester indicated that staff’s work with Trane on the contract language was the reason Lowdermilk had not appeared before the board sooner after Trane won the recommendation for the ESCO project.