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As facilities superintendent at St. Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake, Virginia, Brian Newbern often finds himself in repair and replace mode.

But his true passion — the part of his job he finds most exciting — is investing in green energy and finding replacements that enhance his facility’s energy footprint.

With 1,180 inmates requiring hot water for showers, handwashing, and meal prep, St. Brides Correctional Center has an outsized water heating demand.

It’s a role that’s particularly vital for a prison operating with taxpayer funding. “It’s expensive to house offenders and returning citizens,” Newbern says. “That is part of my job, to get our bills down, get our energy use down as much as we can.”

To achieve that goal, Newbern has maximized the facility’s use of two clean energy sources that work in tandem: solar thermal energy and propane.

Outsized hot water demand

St. Brides opened in 1973 on a rural, 180-acre site in Chesapeake, and was upgraded and rebuilt in phases from 2002 to 2008. The security level 2 facility houses about 1,180 inmates in two primary dormitory buildings; a third building houses the kitchen, medical, and commissary facilities.

Funded by a Stimulus Bill grant, the prison’s solar thermal system works in tandem with efficient propane water heaters to reduce the facility’s large water heating bills.

Like most correctional centers, St. Brides uses a lot of hot water for showers, handwashing stations, and cooking. The facility even has its own water plant and waste treatment facility on site. “Heating the water is yet another cost on top of the water usage,” Newbern says.

With such a large demand for water heating, choosing efficient equipment was critical. And with the facility located in a less populated area, natural gas was unavailable. Turning to propane equipment for water heating, as well as space heating and cooking, was the obvious choice, Newbern says. “Propane is a cleaner fuel, definitely [cleaner] than oil,” he says. “Heating oil is just less efficient, just a dirtier fuel.”

Government grant

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the “Stimulus Bill” — presented Newbern with an opportunity to further enhance that efficiency with a grant for a renewable energy project. When initial plans for wind energy were scuttled due to their impact on a local bat species, Newbern quickly pivoted to solar thermal. Four banks of panels were installed on the facility’s rooftops, preheating the ground water to reduce the energy needed by the water heaters and boilers.

In this Virginia Department of Corrections video, facilities superintendent Brian Newbern provides a tour of St. Brides Correctional Center’s solar thermal installation.

The payback on the $2.3 million renewable system was longer than the facility typically invests in, but the grant-funded project was a win for St. Brides, Newbern says. “St. Brides benefited the day it started,” he says. “When we flipped the switch and turned it on, we started saving money in our budget.” Annual savings since the panels were installed have ranged from $35,000 to $50,000.

The solar thermal system is a particularly beneficial component as St. Brides upgrades its existing water heating equipment to higher-efficiency propane units. “Propane water heaters, they’re getting so efficient now,” he says. “Adding solar to it, not only will it extend their life, it’ll make them more efficient, they won’t have to work as hard, and there will be less maintenance on them.”

Resilient heating, efficient cooking

While finding energy savings is Newbern’s passion, operating a resilient corrections facility is a vital responsibility. Propane plays a key role in making St. Brides more adaptable in an unexpected power outage.

The facility is heated with propane split systems and VAV boxes, which require very little electricity. That’s a huge benefit over electric heating in designing for resilience, Newbern says.

 “We use propane to do all our cooking, which is more efficient and safer.”

“If you had electric heat strips throughout the facility, not only would they be, oh my gosh, humongous, but the backup electrical for that would be sickening, it would be crazy,” he says. “You wouldn’t be able to back that all up.” With propane heating, on the other hand, electricity from the building’s backup generators is only needed to spark the furnaces to get them started.

Likewise, propane equipment was a natural choice for the facility’s busy kitchen, including the griddles, kettles, and ovens. The kitchen cooks about 4,500 meals a day for offenders and several hundred staff. “We use propane to do all our cooking, which is more efficient and safer,” Newbern says. The kitchen staff also prefers it. “It just heats up quicker. They have to cook a lot of meals in there, so we need ready heat now.”

It’s no surprise that correctional facilities are often located in rural or less populated areas, and their large demands for water heating fuel can make it difficult for natural gas utilities to provide adequate supply. For prisons, propane is a smart, flexible energy choice that provides all the benefits of gas at an affordable energy cost.

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Jeffrey Lee