Panel OK’s bill to help schools 'go green'

By Elizabeth Stortroen

Renewable energy seems to be all the buzz at the Statehouse this session, as lawmakers offer bills designed to do everything from creating training programs for the “new energy economy” to requiring homebuilders to offer prospective homebuyers a solar-power option.

New state Rep. Daniel Kagan, second from left, and his brother, far left, hold a banner in support of HB 1312 as Pam Kiely of Environment Colorado, at podium, and State Treasurer Cary Kennedy and Rep. Andy Kerr lend their support for the “Renewables for Schools” proposal.

It’s all part of a push to bring affordable alternative energy to more Coloradans, a major goal of Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration.

Assistant House Majority Leader Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, previewed the latest effort to boost alternative energy at a press conference at the Capitol on March 29. The next day Kerr officially unveiled House Bill 1312, concerning renewable energy and energy efficiency for schools, which would bring together two of this session’s hot-button issues: renewable energy projects and education.

HB 1312, “The Renewable for Schools” proposal, would create a plan through the Governor’s Energy Office and the State Treasury to provide school districts with low-interest loans. The districts would use the loan money to install solar panels or wind turbines or to convert diesel-powered school buses to battery or hybrid-electric power.

Kerr said the program would allow money now spent on energy to be used on classroom education instead.

The low-interest loans are funded by the Public School Permanent Fund, which was created in the 1800s, when the state set aside vast acreages of land for the benefit of schoolchildren. Proceeds from these land sales have been invested by the state and currently are available for this program at a 5.1 percent interest rate. The balance of the fund is currently estimated at $581 million.

Kerr hopes these renewable energy loans will reduce energy costs for schools, promote energy independence and provide students with an opportunity to learn about renewable energy technologies.

“The Renewable for Schools program creates a win-win-win situation,” said Colorado State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has partnered with Kerr to promote the bill. “It’s a win for taxpayers and schools who will save money on energy costs, providing more funds for the classroom. It’s a win for the state, which will see a high investment return on our dollars loaned to schools, and it’s a win for the economy as we create new ‘green’ jobs across the state.”

There was, however, opposition at the House Education Committee meeting on Monday from Barbara Walker, executive officer of the Independent Bankers of Colorado. Walker also testified on behalf of the Colorado Bankers Association.

Walker said local community banks would not be able to compete with the low interest rates offered by the state and would lose business under HB 1312.

Although Walker could not pinpoint the exact percentage rate that community banks would offer school districts for renewable energy loans, she said that in typical financing through a community bank, municipal financing rates — those that a school district can obtain — would always be below the market rate available to the commercial public.

She said HB 1312 would put community banks in direct competition with the state to appropriate loans, thereby putting local community banks at risk for failure on these types of loans.

“This will affect community banks, especially those in our rural communities where our community banks and school districts have longstanding relationships,” Walker said, also noting that local banks have never denied school districts loans that could be used toward renewable energy.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, agreed with Walker and said she supports the idea of implementing renewable energy into our schools, but is nervous about taking business away from community banks.

“I have always been a supporter of the idea, ‘Think globally and act locally,’” Murray said.

Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, reminded the committee that when the schools pay back the interest from the loans, the money would directly go back into the original permanent fund to assist other school districts, allowing the fund to grow, replenish and assist more schools.

Walker stressed that it’s important to not take business away from the banks in these local communities because they do support renewable energy projects.

“We are making renewable energy loans in our communities, but I am not aware of any school districts trying to obtain these loans,” Walker said. “The banks say it is no different and they would run through the same procedure for school districts to obtain these loans.”

Kerr said the difference between loans through HB 1312 and loans school districts could obtain through community banks is that, under his proposal, the school district is required to apply for a loan through the Governor’s Energy Office.

He said the office would evaluate each project application before making its recommendations to the state

Tom Plant, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said his office also would create a plan and timetable tailored to each school’s ability to repay the loan.

“This bill sets up a process where the school district has to come up with a plan with their energy team — a plan as to what they want to do at their school and how to complete it,” Plant said. “They also need to come up with a plan for the loan itself and how they are going to pay that, which must be approved by the Governor’s Energy Office and the state treasurer’s office.

“We are trying to make sure the steps are in place to ensure this is a good plan for the schools and is well thought through,” he said.

Plant also said HB 1312 brings together three different aspects of state government — the Governor’s Energy Office, the state treasurer’s office and the Colorado Board of Education —providing a complete package for school districts.

“Each brings their own areas of expertise that will help our school districts save money, clean up their energy use and make their schools more energy efficient, while teaching students about energy efficiency at the same time,” Plant said.

Pam Kiely, legislative director of Environment Colorado, said, “Colorado is on a path to rebuild and repower our economy on a clean, green foundation” through HB 1312.

“This bill gives school districts the opportunity to get on the bus and participate in building the new energy economy,” she said.

The debate ended with HB 1312 passing the House Education Committee on an 8-to-4 vote, with Reps. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada; Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge; Karen Middleton, D-Aurora; Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs; Judy Solano, D-Brighton; Tom Massey, R-Poncho Springs, Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster, and Christine Scanlon, D-Dillon, voting in favor.

Reps. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock; Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs; Ken Summers, R-Lakewood, and Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, opposed it.

HB 1312 passed its second reading in the House on an initial voice vote Thursday and will have a recorded third-reading in the next few days.