Proposition 39 Will Provide Energy-Saving, Education, and Job Benefits That Are Worth the Wait


A recent news report is raising questions about whether California has moved quickly enough to achieve the ambitious goals of the groundbreaking Proposition 39 - also known as the Clean Energy Jobs Act - which closed a tax loophole on out-of-state corporations three years ago and directed half of the proceeds to be invested in energy efficiency and clean energy improvements to public schools. However, a good rule of public policy is that when faced with the task of creating a big new program you can either move quickly -- or you can be effective.

It's very difficult to do both.

A deliberative process

The California Energy Commission, which is responsible for implementing Proposition 39 to help make our schools and higher education institutions safer and cleaner for years to come - and without using property tax dollars - has moved deliberately and openly to create an innovative program that distributes the funds fairly and helps to ensure the money is spent effectively and consistently within the requirements of the five-year, over $2 billion initiative. In order to maximize the impact of the limited funds, the program rules developed by the commission encourage school districts to invest in comprehensive projects and to leverage other funding sources to help cover the costs of such major energy efficiency and clean energy upgrades.

All of this takes time.

The program rules and funding guidelines had to be developed and approved. The initial guidelines were adopted in December 2013 by the Energy Commission, and revisions continue to be made as needed, most recently in June of last year.

School districts needed to develop their funding applications and project plans, a process that includes onsite audits. Then those proposals had to be reviewed and approved by the commission. School districts then have to hire contractors, schedule construction around the school calendar, and complete the clean energy projects. Finally, it takes a number of months after the project is complete before the data is available to measure the impact of the investments. Under the current guidelines, school districts are not required to report until 15 months after completion of the projects.

At this point, according to Proposition 39 proponents, 84 percent of the 253 projects approved by the commission are multiyear efforts that have yet to begin. But when they do, they will not only create jobs, they will save energy for years to come while creating a better learning environment for our children.

As Californians know well - and a report scheduled to be released this week by NRDC and our affiliate Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) confirms - the state's investments in energy efficiency programs have produced significant long-term benefits, helped support a growing economy, and contributed to the creation of hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs.

Proposition 39 progress

To date, the Energy Commission has approved 253 energy expenditure plans, totaling more than $170 million and benefiting 788 schools in California. The eligible projects include repairs to heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems; new chillers, boilers and furnaces; new lighting and lighting control systems; installation of energy-efficient windows, shades and programmable thermostats; and onsite clean energy generation.

Given the herculean effort it took to launch this program, the fact that school districts are already starting to implement projects less than three years after the proposition was passed (and less than two years after the guidelines were adopted) should be a cause for celebration, rather than alarm. Projects already approved by the commission are expected to save over $25 million on public school district annual energy bills, with many tens of millions more to come as additional projects are approved and implemented. And the program includes a comprehensive reporting system that will help to ensure accountability.

Proposition 39 benefits

Let's not forget that Proposition 39, which was overwhelmingly supported by voters in November 2012, holds great promise for our state and our schoolchildren because it is designed to:

  • Provide resources to retrofit and repair schools across the state to make them more efficient, cleaner and better places to educate our children (for an example of how one company works to help buildings improve their energy efficiency, see this video);
  • Lower the energy bills of cash-strapped school districts by an estimated 25 to 30 percent or more, freeing funds that can be invested in educational priorities like teachers, afterschool programs, and school supplies;
  • Create jobs related to these projects that boost the economy of our communities and our state (for an example of how school efficiency upgrades can create jobs, see this example from San Diego); and
  • Lead to cleaner, safer schools for our children, boosting academic performance.

And it also will help California meet its long-term climate and energy goals because it is part of a suite of policies the state is using to reduce the use of energy - and the need to use fossil-fired power plants to generate it while creating emissions that fuel climate change.

The truth is that we live in an impatient age in which change often happens at lightning speed. So we may feel justified in complaining when it sometimes takes a little longer than that. That's not surprising. But in this case, the benefits will be worth the wait.

Image courtesy of Center on Policy Initiatives