Cool Schools Bill Passed – Now What?

Public schools around Oregon this summer are getting energy-efficient upgrades such as new windows and boilers, thanks to the so-called "Cool Schools" bill (House Bill 2960) the legislature passed this session. Governor Kitzhaber touted the program as a job-creation plan during his campaign, saying it would put to work hundreds of contractors who would install locally made, energy-efficient products in schools.

Governor Kitzhaber outlines Cool Schools projects that were "shovel ready" when he signed the bill in June.The politics behind the Cool Schools bill were remarkable. The bill was labeled as Governor Kitzhaber's initiative and championed by two young, progressive House Democrats from Portland, Reps. Jules Bailey and Jefferson Smith. By all accounts, Republicans had every right to be skeptical. But the bill sailed through the legislature, gaining unanimous votes in both chambers. By the time the bill passed the Senate, Republicans such as Rep. Tim Freeman of Roseburg had signed on as co-sponsors.

The bill directs the Oregon Department of Energy (ODOE) to issue low- or zero-interest loans to schools. School districts submit an application to ODOE outlining schools' needs, and ODOE issues the funds. The money schools save on lower energy bills should be more than enough to pay back the loans over time.

Loan funds come from pre-existing sources, which were pooled to allow for a more streamlined loan process. Sources included federal grant money and funds collected from public purpose charges on utility bills. Money for the program comes from ODOE's clean energy development fund, which had $15 million in it to kick-start projects this summer.

Now it's up to ODOE to get schools to apply for the loans. A recent survey by ODOE of energy utilities cited drafty windows as the number one energy problem for public schools. ODOE is working with school districts to audit their efficiency needs. The agency wants to set up a website that can connect with local contractors to do the work.

This summer's projects are funded by dedicated federal stimulus money. The next round in November will use the full extent of available funds. ODOE and local electric utilities are paying for energy efficiency audits in schools. The results so far are helping to convince school leaders they need to upgrade their windows, boilers, insulation and other equipment.

At the press conference in June where Kitzhaber signed the bill, he introduced Christy Perry, the superintendent of Dallas School District, which conducted projects similar to Cool Schools with local bond money approved by voters. The district replaced boilers and lightbulbs, which Perry said has already saved the school district more than $150,000 in energy bills.

Footnote: On behalf of CFM's client JELD-WEN, the author of this blog was included as part of a broad coalition, from manufacturers and energy contractors to utilities to contractors unions and teachers unions, that met every week and worked with legislators to help them understand the complex funding mechanisms for the Cool Schools program. Those entities were interested in helping public schools save energy, and most of them will benefit, either because the projects will create jobs in their sectors, or because teachers' students will have a better learning environment.