Prisons go green

GUTHRIE: Act 554 allows public entities to use budget waste to fund improvements.
GUTHRIE: Act 554 allows public entities to use budget waste to fund improvements.

When the lunch trays get hosed down at the state prison in Brickeys, the waste gets dumped into a pit that feeds directly into a sewer line. Water hoses must run constantly to propel the daily ton of undigested food a half-mile to the rural Lee County prison's on-site water treatment facility. About 17 million gallons of water is required for this garbage transportation endeavor each year.

It's not the most efficient system, prison officials readily acknowledge.

"Nobody ever actually planned on that much waste going into the sewer," said Gail Mainard, assistant director for construction and maintenance at the Arkansas Department of Correction. "It's a large, bulky load."

The food waste situation at Brickeys is only one example of outdated, inefficient physical plants throughout the prison system as well as in other state government facilities throughout Arkansas.

Now, state prisons and other state entities are getting some help, not only with disposing of food waste more efficiently, but also with some much needed upgrades to electrical services and heating and air conditioning systems. The changes will save the state millions of dollars in utility bills.

Innovations in conservation technology and a recent state law are making such fix-ups much more cost-effective. State agency officials are excited about the opportunity to enter into contracts with qualified firms to do the work. There are clear incentives for state agencies to make their operations more green.

"This is nothing but good news for us," Mainard said.

Entegrity Energy Partners LLC of Little Rock in 2016 was awarded $26.5 million in contracts with the Department of Correction ($17 million) and the Department of Community Correction ($9.5 million) that promise to save the state at least that much in energy costs over 20 years.

Those savings must be guaranteed by the contracts. Otherwise, Entegrity must refund the state the difference in the promised savings and the actual savings or perform additional work to ensure the promised savings are realized, said Rob Guthrie, Entegrity's director of business development.

Act 554 of 2013, sponsored by former state Sen. David Johnson (D-Little Rock), created the Arkansas Energy Performance Contracting Program. The law allows state agencies to treat utility savings as revenue that can be used to pay off capital improvement bonds as long as qualified energy efficiency firms, as certified by the Arkansas Energy Office in the Department of Environmental Quality, are chosen for the work. Otherwise, capital improvements would generally require a separate appropriation act passed by the legislature.

"The whole idea is to use waste already in the budget as a funding source," Guthrie said. "You don't have to go get legislation for an appropriation to pay for this. It's a really efficient way to get these projects done."

Similar legislation exists in nearly all of the 50 states, he said.

Guthrie said rules for Act 554 were promulgated during 2014 and companies were certified during 2015. Entegrity was selected for the Correction and Community Correction contracts the next year and spent subsequent months performing all sorts of measurements and analysis at two prisons (Brickeys and the Delta Regional Unit in Dermott) as well as six detention rehabilitation facilities in Texarkana, Little Rock, Osceola, Fayetteville, Malvern and West Memphis. The company hopes to finish its work by the end of 2018.

After visiting the Brickeys prison, which can house more than 1,600 inmates, the company determined that more than 25 gallons of water every minute was being wasted to flush an average of 1,980 pounds of food each day into the prison's water treatment plant. The water comes from a well at Brickeys and is pumped constantly.

The company quickly concluded that this wasteful use of water must cease. The question then became: How would the food get disposed of?

Entegrity's solution is to build and install a composting facility at Brickeys to turn the inmates' wasted food into fertilizer for prison farms. This will be accomplished with two 40-foot tubes that will rotate every so often with a mixture of wood chips to produce compost.

"We're really curious to see how much compost we will produce," Mainard said.

The water conservation effort doesn't stop there. More than 2,000 prison plumbing fixtures at Brickeys and Dermott will be retrofitted.

"Controls on toilets will limit the number of flushes in a 60-minute window," Guthrie said. "There will be low-flow faucet heads. [The inmates] will encourage each other on being judicious with flushes."

Mainard said an added bonus will be better policing of contraband. Inmates often flush items down the toilet before surprise inspections. Prison staff now will be able to more quickly shut off the water to keep toilets from being used for something other than their intended purpose.

Additionally, Entegrity will transition more than 17,000 light fixtures to high-efficiency LED lights and add solar panels at the facilities encompassing a combined area of 2 acres that will provide reliable on-site energy to supplement purchased power.

Solomon Graves, a Department of Correction spokesman, said that his agency predicts a $2.5 million savings over a 20-year period above the savings necessary to pay the bonds.

"For a long time, energy companies have been running around promising these kind of things," Mainard said. "I kind of considered them to be snake-oil salesmen. But the technology has improved, and it's a pretty comprehensive process to be qualified at the Energy Office. There's a higher level of confidence."

The Correction Department projects a 20 percent reduction in baseline energy consumption and a 40 percent drop in baseline water consumption at the contracted facilities.

The Brickeys and Dermott prisons were chosen for the contract partly because of aging heating and air systems. Without the unique financing offered through Act 554 and without a separate state appropriation, the department would have been forced to replace units on a piecemeal basis.

Department officials are hoping to use Brickeys and Dermott as test cases. They want to learn how to do such retrofitting themselves, so that some such work could be done by in-house staff in the future.

At the Department of Community Correction, solar panels will be added to the Osceola treatment center. Each of the six facilities will receive new LED lighting and energy-efficient windows.

"When [the treatment centers] were built I don't think anyone was as conscious of energy saving as they are now," Community Correction spokeswoman Dina Tyler said. "The idea was basically to keep the rain out, and that was it."

She said it's difficult to cut back on energy use when you're holding inmates. Nothing significant could even be pondered toward making the facilities more energy efficient without the financing benefits allowed by Act 554.

"That to us was huge," Tyler said. "We don't have that kind of money laying around."

Tyler said that total payoff on the bonds is $13,287,507 over a 20-year period, during which energy savings are projected to be $14,810,879. "We should have $1.5 million left over," she said.

According to Entegrity, the Correction and Community Correction projects represent the first by public agencies in Arkansas under the Energy Performance Contracting Program. At least 10 other public entities have entered into similar agreements, including Pulaski County, Arkansas State University, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Little Rock Water Reclamation Authority, Arkansas Tech University and the Central Arkansas Library System.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.