Readin', Writin' and Reducin' Energy

By Jeff Bissonnette from Portland, Oregon. Jeff is the Organizing Director for the Citizens' Utility Board of Oregon (CUB), a nonprofit organization named in state law as the representative of Oregon utility ratepayers.

Schools have always been about the three Rs. But a bill in the Oregon legislature might just add a new 'R' - reducin' energy. And it has been getting some coverage in the media lately. The “Cool Schools” bill, HB 2960 seeks to help school districts across the state utilize existing funds more effectively and efficiently to make school buildings energy efficient and has gotten print in a recent Daily Journal of Commerce article and in last week’s Willamette Week.

In a closely divided legislature, it’s good to see a proposal that attracts bipartisan interest. After all, as CUB has said for years, saving energy isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue: it’s an Oregonian issue. And the Cool Schools bill hits a lot of common ground, no matter where you are on the political spectrum: reducing energy usage, creating jobs, strengthening Oregon’s role as a clean energy leader, making schools more efficient so that more money can eventually make its way into the classroom rather than being spent on overhead.

From a ratepayer perspective, CUB’s mantra has been “the cheapest kilowatt hour is the one you don’t have to produce in the first place.” It doesn’t matter to us where the energy savings come from, as long as we actually get them. That’s why we helped create public purpose funding to ensure that a steady level of ratepayer dollars supports energy efficiency activity over a long period of time. As the Willamette Week article points out, a significant portion of those public purpose dollars – 10 percent – is set aside for energy efficiency projects in schools in the service territories of Portland General Electric and Pacific Power.

However, we are not dismissive of Cool Schools as the Willamette Week article appeared to be. The article suggested that there was nothing new in the Cool Schools proposal since the public purpose dollars have been around for nearly a decade and not all the money available has been spent in that time. To us, those factors underscore the need for the Cool Schools proposal: If just $15 million is left in the fund after nearly a decade, that suggests that schools are indeed using the fund. Oregon is facing hard times these days. If there are resources available to help any institution operate more effectively, we need to make sure those resources are used and used wisely.

HB 2960 works to combine existing resources, like the public purpose dollars, with other financial resources such as the state’s Small-Scale Energy Loan Program (SELP) and federal Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds (QECBs) to buy down the cost of loan monies. This ensures that the stream of public purpose dollars, which are guaranteed through 2025, can leverage loan money to make fund available immediately and those loans can be repaid through the stream of public purpose money. Even better, the SELP loans and the QECBs can be used in schools districts outside of PGE and Pacific Power territories, ensuring that Cool Schools has a statewide reach.

Cool Schools scores well on another front too: because the Cool Schools building upgrades use funds that would otherwise not be applied to the general education budget – like federal QECBs – the initiative actually adds an additional revenue stream to schools.

To paraphrase a University of Oregon professor quoted in the DJC article, there is no silver bullet. We have to keep figuring out how to save energy where and how we can. If we can effectively save energy in school buildings – even those that aren’t used all day or on a year-round basis – we can use that experience to acquire even more savings in other public and private sector buildings. We need to do it all. But, as CUB has pointed out in the past, we can’t do it all at once. So we start where we can, where there are opportunities and keep the momentum going from there. And, in the case of HB 2960, if we can save energy in schools without impacting the already overstretched General Fund, all the better.

CUB is proud to support the Cool Schools proposal and has encouraged our members and supporters to contact their legislators to urge the passage of HB 2960. As an Oregonian, you should too. You can find out your legislator’s contact information. Help the Legislature pass good energy policy, protect ratepayers and help our school tax dollars go just a little bit farther.

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