In the News:  Complete schools energy audit

HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER

EDITORIAL - OUR VIEW

Complete schools energy audit

In this era of rising demands on the public educational system, officials are duty-bound to make the most of its limited resources, cutting waste where possible so that those funds can be plowed back into delivering service to the students.

That’s why the Star-Advertiser shares the disappointment expressed by Don Horner, chairman of the state Board of Education, during a school-board presentation on a project touted as a money-saving initiative, one that also should yield educational opportunity for school children.

That project, a five-year sustainability program called Ka Hei, is meant to use photovoltaic (PV) installations in school facilities as a means of saving money and, concurrently, of teaching a curriculum about clean-energy technology at schools.

Horner and other board members were clearly expecting that among the deliverables from contractor OpTerra Energy would be energy audits of the state’s 255 public schools.

Department of Education officials say they will be forthcoming, but so far, have data only for a small fraction of schools.

It’s clear that the strategy is to move ahead on installations at the schools where that would be easiest — in the 30 identified as being on circuits cleared by Hawaiian Electric Co. for PV energy to be piped to the grid.

Low-hanging fruit should be seized, certainly, but having the big picture of energy use systemwide is essential to crafting a plan for optimal conservation and budgetary savings.

DOE officials, who now won’t be accruing these savings as soon as expected, must see that OpTerra completes the audits, as promised, and as soon as possible, to enable this planning to proceed.

They also will have a lot of explaining to do to lawmakers, who last session had reduced the DOE budget by $9 million, anticipating lower energy costs, and now will have to consider a supplemental allotment of $13 million.

The department’s challenge there is complicated further by the messy history of this particular contract. It was announced with great fanfare in March that an estimated $1 billion in operating costs could be saved over 25 years through deployment of PV systems.

Under the deal, OpTerra (formerly known as Chevron Energy Solutions) would pay all the up-front costs, including the installation of 100 megawatts of renewable-energy generating capacity, and sell the electricity to the DOE at a fixed price below what the department pays for utility-provided power.

A rival proposal had been submitted by Prime Solutions Inc., which challenged the OpTerra award, delaying the start of the work.

Further, the conflict led to the filing of a state Circuit Court lawsuit in July 2013. Sarah McCann, employed by the DOE as an emergency hire in 2012 to audit the competing proposals, alleges in the complaint that she was terminated because she recommended that Prime Solutions be selected.

Otherwise, McCann’s audit concluded, the project would cost the state $284 million in lost savings, according to the complaint.

Whether or not this is true, OpTerra has something to prove here, and it’s the job of the state to see that it does.

Brian Kealoha, regional manager for OpTerra, said the company expects to start construction within the next few months on the PV systems that will produce 2 megawatts of renewable energy by the end of the year.

Horner was right to be circumspect.

“We paid you several million dollars’ worth of consulting fees, and as it sits here today, our utility costs, I don’t know how much it’s been impacted by your expertise,” he said.

The job, he rightly added, is to look at all the schools and establish a baseline. Even if, as Kealoha said, HECO is slow in approving installations and work can’t begin at all the schools, the comprehensive 255-school audit should illuminate ways of implementing other energy efficiencies to reduce costs.

Hawaii pays the highest electrical bills in the nation, and in the case of the DOE, this drains resources from its main purpose: educating our youth.

It’s time to move on this opportunity to redirect taxpayer funds in just that way.