One of the upsides of having a governor who is the former longtime chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee is the intimate, comprehensive knowledge of state revenue and obligations that comes with that experience.

Gov. David Ige’s background in that role showed in the innovative idea he has put forward for fast action on getting air conditioning into the worst of Hawaii’s piping-hot public schools.

It’s a plan that needs vetting, and time will tell if it’s the best approach to cooling off our classrooms, but it demonstrates creative thinking and more importantly shows that the governor is on board with the growing movement to finally do something about overheated students and teachers.

Ige’s fast-track proposal, introduced in his State of the State address, would use $100 million in Green Energy Marketing Securitization or GEMS funding to get air conditioning in 1,000 of the hottest classrooms by year’s end, and some form of heat abatement for all Hawaii public classrooms within five years. It was so novel, it surprised even some members of the administration and no small number of legislators and teachers union leaders, many of whom have been creating their own potential approaches to the AC challenge.

Photovoltaic solar panels would be among the energy efficient technologies used to bring air conditioning to Hawaii schools, under a proposal announced last week by Gov. David Ige.
Photovoltaic solar panels would likely be among the energy efficient technologies used to bring air conditioning to Hawaii schools, under a proposal announced last week by Gov. David Ige. Doug Murray/FPL

The GEMS program was created by the Legislature in 2013 to make green, renewable energy more affordable for underserved consumers. The state sold $150 million in GEMS bonds the following year for exactly that purpose.

That same year, however, growth of solar energy installations outpaced the ability of Oahu’s electrical grid to use the power, causing safety concerns and a dramatic slowdown in new installations. That over-supply combined with the emergence of private sector financing for solar and the end of net metering meant the need for the GEMS funding as originally intended virtually evaporated in a changed marketplace.

But the bond proceeds are still there and being repaid through a nominal charge on each utility customer’s monthly bill. Ige’s plan would draw from those proceeds, albeit for a slightly different purpose than what was originally intended and under a different scenario than what was originally presented to bond buyers.

The proposal would not only use GEMS funds to pay for air conditioning, but for the electrical infrastructure upgrades that many of Hawaii’s aging public schools would require to support an AC system, as well as other energy efficiency technologies.

Ige and his administration are certainly aware of the issues that must be addressed to use GEMS funding and have reasonable confidence they can be overcome, including assuring necessary compliance with bond covenants, according to state Budget Director Wes Machida.

Tara Young, executive director of the Hawaii Green Infrastructure Authority, agrees and points out that the technologies that the governor’s plan would support have already been declared eligible for GEMS funding by the Public Utilities Commission.

Young also says that by building energy efficiencies into school electrical systems, Ige’s plan would trim power costs, even as the new air conditioning systems are brought on line. That could considerably lower the ultimate cost of providing air conditioning for all Hawaii public schools, which has been estimated to be as high as $1.7 billion by the state Department of Education.

Discussions are already underway involving Young and HGIA, Machida and the Department of Budget and Finance and the Department of Education on the fine points of implementation of the proposal.

Legislative Incentive For Fast Passage

The biggest challenge, in a legislative marketplace now flush with school air conditioning ideas, may be formally passing the appropriation legislation for the bond repayment over competing plans. But legislators — particularly those running for re-election this year — have a powerful incentive to make rapid progress on this issue.

Machida said that while he hasn’t gone through all of the various competing proposals, “What I’ve been told in particular about (the governor’s plan) is that it appears to be the quickest way to accomplish what it’s intended to do, to get air conditioning and energy-efficient lighting in the schools.”

In fact, SB 3126 and HB 2726 — measures introduced Wednesday by Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Joe Souki to facilitate the borrowing of monies from the GEMS fund and $30 million in general obligation bonds in support of the proposal — include the provision that both are “recommended by the governor for immediate passage in accordance with section 9 of article VII of the Constitution of the State of Hawaii.” That allows the legislation to be passed prior to passage of the general appropriations bill — an exception the Constitution doesn’t provide for any other bill that appropriates funds.

Fan tailing hot air in classroom Ilima Intermediate School in Ewa Beach. The temperature was measured at 94.1F with fans going and no student inside on September 12, 2014
The temperature in this Ilima Intermediate School classroom in Ewa Beach registered more than 94 degrees — with fans — in a 2014 measurement . PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“In order to upgrade 1,000 classrooms by the end of calendar year 2016 and to cool as many classrooms as possible during the hottest months, this project must proceed as quickly as possible,” the bills read, in part.

For parents, teachers and students who recall the sweltering hell that was the beginning of the school year in 2015 — the warmest year on record — speed is definitely of the essence if such conditions aren’t to be experienced again this fall. Legislators who provide the necessary votes to get the proverbially “shovel ready” project approved would be able to point that out to voters, ostensibly to the candidates’ benefit, particularly if changes can be made in some of the worst locations by the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.

Another proposal from state representative and green energy leader Chris Lee already has a remarkable total of 46 bi-partisan introducers — all but five members of the House.

HB 2569 would accomplish much of the same objectives of the governor’s proposal, though it would pay for them with new general obligation bonds. It would also establish a “net-zero” energy use goal by 2035 for the Department of Education, meaning the DOE would be required to generate as much power as it uses through solar energy systems and perhaps other renewable means.

Meanwhile, some critical details of Ige’s plan aren’t yet available. For instance, interest on the GEMS funding, which would be tantamount to a low-interest loan to the DOE, would be paid from general revenue. Because final terms of the deal haven’t been completed, Machida can’t say yet how much of a drain on general revenue the plan would represent. “It’s something we have to be mindful of,” he said.

As do we all. With momentum building behind the proposal, lawmakers can’t let enthusiasm for a rapid response override any unforeseen issues that would reasonably require them to modify the plan or scrap it in favor of a better proposal.

But we like what we’re seeing thus far. For overheated Hawaii schools and the students they serve, this legislative session is off to a very promising start.

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