In the waning hours of the election, supporters of Referendum 52 are asking voters to ignore the empirical data showing most energy retrofits don’t pay for themselves.
Case-in-point, the Sightline Institute’s latest blog post, “Energy-Efficient Schools: Improved Classroom Comfort ,” which highlights energy retrofit projects at a school district outside Vancouver, Washington. In total, the projects highlighted by Sightline cost taxpayers approximately $750,000 generating nearly $33,000 in annual savings. That means it will take the district about 39 years (using a discount rate of 3 percent) for the projects simply to break even. That is well beyond the ten years proponents often cite as the typical timeline for payback on these projects.
We are told not to worry. It “…might sound like a lot,” Sightline writes, “but it results not only in energy savings, but also improved classroom comfort and better lighting to boot.”
This argument asks voters to ignore the real costs and instead focus on social benefits that cannot be measured, akin to saying “trust us.”
Sightline again makes this argument when they note the same district would like to spend another $2.5 million on similar energy efficiency upgrades for a heat and cooling system. Sightline neglects to tell voters what projected savings would occur from this project, instead noting, “Grants issued under Referendum 52, up for a public vote in this fall’s election, would fund just this kind of smart fix.”
In our conversation with the district, however, they acknowledge even this project wouldn’t pencil out, which is why they aren’t doing it themselves and making it hard to qualify for funding under Referendum 52’s guidelines.
The bottom line, the costs for these types of projects is higher than proponents claim and often outweigh the benefits. Arguing social benefits, without attempting to quantify their value, and saying “trust us” doesn’t change the overwhelming data; claims that every energy project will pay for itself just don’t add up.