I’ve written twoposts about Han’s Dunshee’s proposed legislation to borrow $3 billion to retrofit Washington schools. The proposal would have the state borrow money, make money-saving improvements to school buildings, and then use the savings to help pay back the loan. The Washington Policy Center (WPC) has criticized both the bill and also the general idea that investment in building green is worth the money.

I was curious to find out what the pitfalls with the legislation might be. WPC has three objections to the legislation. Let’s take them one by one. 

  • First, WPC states the obvious: “not all investments are equal. Some investments may make sense . . . without an analysis of the costs and benefits, simply spending money on energy products does not guarantee future savings.” As an example of a project too expensive to make sense, WPC attacks mandatory LEED building certification for school buildings. But the  line of attack is off base because that isn’t what Dunshee’s legislation would do. There is nothing in the legislation that mandates particular kinds of retrofits or LEED certification. Swing and a miss.

    The second objection offered by WPC is about how to determine whether green buildings save money over the status quo. The report criticizes studies that claim savings based on comparisons of buildings constructed to “either a minimum construction standard or to buildings with an average age of nearly 40 years old.”

    But that’s precisely the point: many of the school buildings eligible for retrofits really are 40 years old, or are built to minimum standards, or both. So the comparisons are  perfectly legitimate. Older and bare bones buildings make for the best buys in energy efficiency—and there are lots of them in the real world. Sure, an expensive “retrofit” of a relatively new school with decent energy performance might not make much financial sense, but Dunshee’s legislation doesn’t force districts to make improvements if they don’t pencil out. Strike two.

    The last objection WPC raises is that “past projections of energy savings have been inaccurate and misleading.” WPC is referring to the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s (SPI) analysis of the Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol (WSSP)—a phased-in requirement to build new school projects green—which found that “few districts reported initial cost savings from particular (WSSP) strategies.”  But the same SPI analysis goes on to say “[the districts] were not specifically asked to do so in their reports. However, several districts included immediate and anticipated future cost savings in their report narratives and life cycle assessments.” (emphasis is mine).

    In other words, WPC uses the SPI report to criticize Dunshee’s legislation but ignores the fact that the districts weren’t asked to report about their energy savings. What’s more, some of the districts chose to report their energy savings anyway found just what you might expect: energy efficiency investments pay for themselves over time.

    It is too early to tell, on the whole, whether buildings constructed following the WSSP protocol will produce enough savings to offset the up front investment. But many schools are reporting savings—and the lessons we learn from the program’s ongoing data collection should inform investment decisions on retrofits.

    The only other empirical evidence WPC offers to criticize the WSSP is that they claim to have found at least one non-green building that outperformed a green building in the same district. However, they don’t share the age, location, square footage or energy use at the schools being compared, so we can’t know if WPC’s comparison is fair or not. I’d call that three strikes.

    The WPC report is misleading and seems mostly designed to cast doubt on Dunshee’s pending legislation. The legislation may not become law this year, but many school districts and other public institutions are already making upgrades that improve energy efficiency as the SPI study confirms. They are making these improvements because they “make sense,” promising real savings from capital improvements that make their buildings green. Other districts might be considering these kinds of improvements too, and legislation like Dunshee’s just might provide the vehicle to make the smart investments.

    We may, however, agree with WPC on one point: that cost-benefit analysis should inform our investment decisions. That way  we can be sure our investments will have the biggest impact on boosting efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases.