Lawmakers gave initial approval Wednesday to legislation that would provide the tens of millions of dollars needed for Gov. David Ige’s aggressive plan to cool 1,000 public school classrooms by the end of the year.
The Senate Transportation and Energy, and Education committees jointly advanced Senate Bill 3126, which would loan the Department of Education
$100 million from the state’s Green Energy Market Securitization, or GEMS, program. The bill also appropriates
$7 million from the general fund for an initial loan payment.
The GEMS program, established in 2013, was set up as a financing program to provide low-cost loans to homeowners and nonprofits for photovoltaic systems and other clean-energy improvements. The state sold $150 million in bonds in 2014 to launch the program — and has spent $1.2 million so far in administrative costs — but has financed only three consumer loans totaling $107,000 to date.
The principal and interest on the bonds are being repaid by all utility ratepayers through a surcharge on monthly electricity bills. The surcharge, labeled as a “Green Infrastructure Fee” on bills, was roughly $1.40 last month for residential customers.
Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee told the committees that extremely high temperatures in public school classrooms have been a problem for decades and became unbearable this past summer.
“As teachers who have suffered through this, after a period of time, the classroom is no longer a classroom. It’s an oven. It’s an oven you’re in all day,” Rosenlee said.
He said the heat makes it challenging to concentrate and became a health hazard in some cases this school year when temperatures hit record highs throughout the summer and fall months. (The school year began July 29. In August alone, there were 19 days when the temperature reached 90 degrees or higher in Honolulu, according to the National Weather Service.)
Calling the classroom “a sacred learning space,” the governor in his State of the State speech last month pledged to cool 1,000 classrooms “by the end of this year and thousands more each year through the end of 2018” using the existing GEMS funds to begin installing air conditioners and energy-efficient technologies.
Of the 11,778 DOE classrooms across the state, roughly 4,400 had air conditioning as of last month, according to department data. A total of 47 schools — about 18 percent of DOE schools — have at least
90 percent of their classrooms air-conditioned.
Senate Education Chairwoman Michelle Kidani
(D, Mililani-Waikele-Kunia) asked school officials how they plan to prioritize which classrooms to cool this year.
Dann Carlson, assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services, said the DOE has a priority list that currently includes 31 schools in need of what the department calls “heat-abatement efforts.”
“We know we have at least 1,000 classrooms in those 31 schools that currently do not have air conditioning,” Carlson said. “The approach there will be to analyze all of those in accordance with our heat-abatement strategy, which is not necessarily to put AC in each classroom. There are other ways we are trying to passively cool (classrooms) to do this in a fiscally responsible manner. … But again, these are our hottest classrooms. As we progress down the list, though, we do anticipate hopefully not having to put AC necessarily in every classroom.”
SB 3126 also would appropriate $30 million in state-backed bonds for the DOE’s heat-abatement program, which also includes installing ceiling fans, solar-powered vents to draw out hot air and heat-reflective roof systems.
Carlson said the DOE is continuing to work under an existing contract with OpTerra Energy Services, which has been performing energy audits at schools and proposing ways to make them more energy-efficient. By installing LED lighting and photovoltaic systems, he said, schools will be able to offset the increased energy use expected with the influx of AC units coming online.
Wes Machida, director of the state Department of Budget and Finance, testified that his department would be a co-borrower on the $100 million GEMS loan and responsible for loan repayments.
“Using the Green Infrastructure Loan Program funds will allow the state to make the best use of its existing resources, as these funds are currently available,” Machida wrote in supporting testimony. “Additionally, use of this alternative funding source will mean that these projects will not compete for the limited (general obligation) bond funds that must be used to address projects statewide.”
The Tax Foundation of Hawaii expressed concerns about the financing.
“Apparently GEMS is an attractive target for raiding because most of the
$150 million raised in the bond issues is still there. But three things need to be remembered,” the foundation said in written testimony. “First, it’s a financing program, not a grant program. Second, it’s been established for specific purposes. Third, it is funded by all users of electricity through a ‘green infrastructure fee’ on our electric bills.
“If we use this $100 million of GEMS money, we need to pay it back in the future. The Legislatures of tomorrow, then, will need to appreciate and provide for payment of his debt,” the foundation said. “Some would call this kicking the can down the road.”
Senate Transportation and Energy Chairwoman Lorraine Inouye (Kaupulehu-Waimea-North Hilo) said while she supports the governor’s intent, she has concerns about the loan repayment.
“Is it fair to pay back the loan on GEMS from the general fund? Because the taxpayers are paying for it,” she said. “I don’t know. It’s something that we all have to talk about.”
The Blue Planet Foundation and the Renewable Energy Action Coalition of Hawaii, a trade association, supported the measure.
“Instead of letting those borrowed funds remain idle, it makes sense to use (it) to pay for solar air conditioning and other energy-efficiency improvements in the state’s schools,” Erik Kvam, director of the Renewable Energy Action Coalition of Hawaii, testified. “Such improvements will save the state money and allow the state to repay the borrowed funds out of money saved from such improvements.”
The bill next heads to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.