Ice rinks across the country fight enemy No. 1: Energy bills

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WOODSTOCK, Vt. (AP) — A small community skating rink that was once in danger of folding is working on a long-term plan to eliminate its biggest single expense — its energy bill — by becoming what its leaders believe would be the country's first with no costs for electricity or heating fuel.

The plan includes upgrading the existing equipment at Woodstock's Union Arena for efficiency, finding ways to reuse some of the heat generated by the power-sucking compressors used to make ice and, finally, buying solar panels that will be erected elsewhere.

While the long-term plan to eliminate the power bill, making the rink "net zero," is in its early phases, the rink's electricity consumption from early November to early December was down 12.5 percent from the same period a year ago, said Harold Mayhew, the president of the Union Arena Board of directors and an architect who specializes in skating rinks.

"If you can make a hockey rink a net zero building, you can make anything net zero," said Mayhew, who designed the rink at Maine's Bowdoin College, which opened in 2009 and became the nation's first hockey rink to be certified by The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, or LEED, that rates buildings for their energy efficiency.

Energy costs are typically the largest bills for skating rinks, which use huge amounts of electricity to run the equipment that makes and maintains the ice used by hockey players, figure skaters and others, such as curlers .

"Utilities is what kills the rinks," said Paul Moore, the chairman of the Board of Governors for Falmouth Youth Hockey in Massachusetts and the coach of the Falmouth High School hockey team. He has worked to reduce his facility's electric bill by installing 4,400 solar panels on the roof and in a nearby parking lot that produces just short of 1 megawatt of electricity, enough for about 164 homes.

Through a deal with a utility, the Falmouth facility is guaranteed for 10 years an $85,000 a year savings on its electric bill, but it's not down to zero.

"This has been huge for us," Moore said. "We're a nonprofit. The youth hockey organization owns the rink, so this allows us to continue our mission statement of keeping tuition low and keeping ice rates low."

Across the country, rinks large and small are always looking for ways to save energy and therefore money, said Kevin McLaughlin, the senior director of hockey development at USA Hockey, the organization that oversees most youth hockey programs in the country.

For example, he said, at the University of Colorado, excess heat from the skating rink's ice system is used to heat the water in the swimming pool. National Hockey League teams are also working to save energy, and the NHL's Greener Rinks initiative is sharing best practices with the small community rinks.

"Community rinks are the front lines of our game," said Omar Mitchell, NHL's vice president for corporate and social responsibility.

Mayhew, a Woodstock resident who designed the original rink that opened in 2003 and became involved again several years ago when the energy bill had helped push the rink to the brink of closing. Energy costs at about $140,000 a year were about a third of the rink's total budget.

"They were having such a hard time keeping the doors open they couldn't afford to do any of the work to cut down on energy consumption," said Mayhew, who joined the Board of Directors in 2013 and later became president.

The first goal was to raise enough money to pay off the rink's debts. Then the rink embarked on its four-tier plan to eventually reach net zero.

Mayhew designs rinks in New England, but he works with people who know the industry across North America and beyond. He says no one he has spoken with is aware of any other facility working to reduce its energy bill to zero.

The rink is still raising the estimated $1.3 million that will be needed to make the changes.

Mayhew said he hoped the net zero goal can be reached in about two years and then serve as an example for other rinks.

"I firmly believe that once the first one is done, there will be dozens in a very short time," he said.

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