Oregon hashes out green schools plan
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber made greening public schools a major theme of his campaign last fall, touting the usual energy-efficiency trifecta – carbon savings, lower energy bills and local retrofitting jobs. Now comes the hard part: getting his “Cool Schools” plan through a state House split between the parties and preoccupied with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.
For that task, Kitzhaber’s turned to Rep. Jules Bailey (D-Portland), a young lawmaker who helped pass a green jobs bill for weatherizing homes as a freshman two
three years ago. Bailey’s leading an effort in the House to find upfront funding for work that will save schools money for years – and to get it all started by this summer.
Finding bipartisan support for greening schools won’t be the problem, Bailey said in an interview. He said the challenge is to do it without burdening the budget or using general obligation bonds that hurt the state’s credit rating – which has come under scrutiny by ratings services.
He believes he’s found a solution by using energy savings bonds, a bond structure that creates a revenue stream based on the energy savings they enable. They have no effect on the state’s general obligation bonds, a key selling point in the legislature. Bailey’s bill would combine them with existing federal and state funds for school energy projects to provide some $100 million for low-cost or no-cost loans for K-12 schools.
“We’re trying to help schools do that in a way that doesn’t create a tradeoff between facilities and teachers and classroom spending,” said Bailey, a former economist and sustainable development specialist at the consulting firm ECONorthwest. “The beautiful thing about energy efficiency is that a little investment now saves you a lot over time.”
Schools would use the funds to audit their energy use, then repair leaky roofs and walls, add insulation and in some cases replace windows and consider rooftop solar arrays. Some of the biggest savings could come through upgrading old boilers in school basements, according to Jon Isaacs, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.
“Some of those have been in there since the '60s,” he said.
One provision would promote woody-biomass boilers. That’s drawn the support of the timber industry, but it also raises concerns about air quality and about whether it could lead to burning whole trees, rather than just waste debris and logging slash.
State green groups support the plan, though. “This is one of the few things where [lawmakers] can actually get boots on the ground for green jobs right away,” said Isaacs.
“The governor understands that a healthy economy relies on a healthy environment and a healthy workforce,” said Jana Gastellum of the Oregon Environmental Council. “This really rolls all those things together.”
Gastellum notes that higher indoor air quality and constant temperatures have been linked to better student attendance rates and test performance.
She also points out that leadership on public facilities often leads to the private sector following suit. The Americans with Disabilities Act started as a requirement for government buildings, but its influence has spread to commercial buildings. Gastellum hopes that efficient schools have the same effect.
Gov. Kitzhaber opened his office to a meeting on the “Cool Schools” bill this week to signal his support. The bill doesn’t yet have Republican co-sponsors, but Bailey expects it will before the end of June, when the legislative session ends.
“The technical details are complicated, but if we’re able to get them right, I don’t think we’re going to have a lot of folks against this,” he said.