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Schools get energy pass

By Paul Snyder
paul.snyder@dailyreporter.com

Wisconsin will let school districts spend more on energy-efficiency projects, but the money might not make it to the construction industry unless someone forces the issue.

“The problem right now is that the big incentive for schools to do these projects is grants and tax credits,” said Chris Collins, spokesman for Madison-based H&H Solar Energy Services Inc. “If the state gives them more room to spend, they might. But the only way to guarantee more work is if you make them.”

For now, encouragement is about as far as the state is willing to go. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on Monday will hold a public hearing on a new law exempting efficiency projects from the state-imposed school district spending cap.

The law goes into effect Jan. 1. It lets school districts increase spending limits by the amount of money needed for energy-efficiency projects and products that reduce utility costs. In turn, districts must show how much money will be saved and how soon the project or product expense will be recouped.

It’s a step toward improving energy efficiency and creating more jobs, said Christine Clair, president of the School District of La Crosse Board of Education. But, she said, it does not mean school districts will outfit every building with solar panels, solar-fueled water heating systems and energy-efficient boilers.

“Before we do anything, we still have to have local support,” she said. “Trying to sell any spending increase to voters in this economic climate is still going to be very difficult.”

The La Crosse district this year received voter approval to install energy-efficient boiler systems in three schools, but Clair said that was after two failed referendums.

School districts and voters still must figure it out for themselves because the state will not require the projects, said state Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire.

“I don’t think it’s the right time, and I don’t think any time is the right time to mandate that every school district should be outfitted the same way,” he said. “You have to have additional investment from the districts, and I don’t think every district can or will be willing to do that.”

Smith, a member of the Assembly Committee on Education, said the projects that result from the new law likely will be small. But the state cannot afford to give money to the districts to make sure the larger projects happen, he said.

“This is the best we can do,” Smith said.

That might not mean much to the companies that install new systems. H&H has outfitted many schools with solar panels, Collins said, but school projects still account for only about 5 percent of the company’s workload.

The key to increasing that, he said, is to loosen restrictions on school spending and to extend the timelines for repayment. The real value of putting solar panels and water systems in schools, Collins said, is not the money saved on utility bills.

“The value of those projects is showing kids what it looks like to have solar panels on a building,” he said. “They’re the ones that are going to see it and think in the future about putting them on their homes. There is not a dollar value you can attach to that.”

Next Step
What: public hearing on increased school district spending for energy efficiency
Who: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
When: Monday Nov. 9, 3 p.m.
Where: room 041, GEF 3 Building, 125 S. Webster St., Madison
Information: 800-441-4563

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