After more than a year of researching and writing about energy efficiency and green job creation I have come to realize that I was no Columbus in terms of discovering the benefits of energy saving retrofits for buildings: those benefits were discovered long ago.

Among the most obvious benefits to making buildings more energy efficient—whether it is a home, business, or school—is saving money. This is exactly what Referendum 52—the ballot measure voters will consider in Washington State this fall—will do.

  • When we retrofit a school we’re making our schools healthier and better places to learn. But every dollar that is saved is money that schools can put back to work in the classroom.  Is the basis of Referendum 52 a speculative, innovative, or risky experiment? No. Remember, I’m no Columbus. The basic principles of Referendum 52 have already been at work in our state and in our region for years.

    Take for example the Burlington-Edison School District in Skagit County, Washington, serving the towns of Alger, Bow, Burlington, and Edison, and the surrounding community. The district has roughly 4,000 students and 236 certificated staff in seven buildings.

    In 2002 the district undertook a major retrofit that included lighting, water, and ventilation retrofits at the High School, Westview Elementary, and the District Office Building. The project cost was $322,781 and the district borrowed most of the money ($278,166) and covered the rest with a rebate from Puget Sound Energy ($44,615). The district is now saving an estimated $35,488 per year.

    Please keep in mind that the following example is hypothetical based on an actual project, so my interest rate assumption, for example, might be a bit high or low. I based it on the most recent interest rates cited by the Local Option Capital Asset Lending (LOCAL) program. But my purpose here is to be illustrative of how projects like this can pencil out. If the district borrowed the entire amount for the retrofits at about 3 percent interest with a ten year payback the annual payment on the loan for the district would be around $31,000, just a little bit less than what the district would be saving.

    That means the efficiencies themselves save a little bit more money than the cost of paying back the loan. And here’s the best part, the loan will be paid off in a couple of years and they will have an additional $30,000 to spend on education. The Burlington-Edison project is truly an example of an energy saving retrofit that pays for itself.

    But consider this: Referendum 52 doesn’t require any payback; districts that qualify for funding if the legislation passes get to keep all those savings. If districts combine their proposal for funds with other local dollars, financing from programs like LOCAL, and rebates from utilities the savings could be even more.

    For a small district like Burlington-Edison $32,000 extra a year can mean a lot, especially when the average starting salary for a teaching in Washington State is (drum roll) about $32,000 dollars. Referendum 52 builds on a tried and true method of calculating savings from the best retrofits, and enables schools to put that money back to work doing what schools do best: teaching our kids.