On June 23, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would require the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to create one central resource state and school officials could use to find information on available federal programs and financing options for energy efficiency, distributed generation, and energy retrofitting projects for schools.

Despite receiving strong bipartisan support in the House, the bill, which could have an impact on commercial HVAC contractors who work with schools, now faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

A Resource for Schools

HR 4092: Streamlining Energy Efficiency for Schools Act of 2014, which is only a few paragraphs long, would direct the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) to “establish a clearinghouse to disseminate information regarding available federal programs and financing mechanisms that may be used to help initiate, develop, and finance energy efficiency, distributed generation, and energy retrofitting projects for schools.” It would also require the DOE to “coordinate with appropriate federal agencies to develop a collaborative education and outreach effort to streamline communications and promote available federal programs and financing mechanisms … which may include the development and maintenance of a single online resource.”

Charlie McCrudden, senior vice president of government relations for ACCA, said the bill could provide a valuable resource for school administrators who may not have the ability to research and gather such information on their own. “Nationwide, school budgets are always stretched really thin,” he explained. “Often, schools choose equipment maintenance over equipment replacement, and sometimes they have to defer maintenance, so it can be difficult for some school systems to make big capital investments.”

Tom Phoenix, president of ASHRAE, said the bill would, in a nutshell, “make information easier to get, and that’s a big deal for schools that have limited budgets and resources.”

“If there were a single database that would tell the schools where they could get funding for things and what kind of federal programs are available to them, that would take a number of steps out of the process. With this, they could go ahead and determine what kinds of grants and funding are available much easier,” Phoenix continued. “It really would streamline the process for them, and if the process is streamlined, and the more these programs were utilized by the school systems, then, obviously, that creates opportunities for the school to improve their facilities, improve their energy efficiency, and keep their utility costs down.”

Phoenix added the economic impact of the bill could extend beyond just the end user.

“The engineers get involved to design, the contractor gets involved to build the project, and the impact goes way beyond the school and into the local community,” he said. “The other side benefit is those schools could use those kinds of projects to build into the learning environment and teach students about sustainability and energy conservation.”

Greg Crumpton, president and founder of Airtight Mechanical, Charlotte, North Carolina, also said the bill could be a valuable resource for schools. “My word for it is an aggregator. I think it brings people together that have a need, a resource, or expertise. It puts them in the right crowd, so you can collaborate and come up with the best-case scenario.”

A Boost for Contractors

For HVAC contractors who work on schools, direct access to funding options could encourage school administrators to make HVAC system upgrades they may not otherwise be able to afford. That, McCrudden said, has big potential for commercial contractors.

“It may not appear to have a direct impact on contractors, but the end result is schools would have easier access to information, and that would hopefully help them make the decision to make those improvements. That’s when they call a contractor,” he added. “This can generate more activity.”

Crumpton agreed: “I definitely see this being a source of almost lead generation for the performance contracting community. I think, if it’s done properly and shows all the different channels available — from grants to rebates available from power companies and utilities — I think it’s a great idea.”

Mark Ames, senior manager of federal government affairs for ASHRAE, said that, should the DOE create this resource and put it online, it could also be used by contractors to help their school customers.

“Hopefully it would be very user-friendly, so anyone who wanted to go in and check out what’s going on would be able to do so easily,” Ames said. “Contractors could go in and say, ‘here’s how I can coordinate things.’”

But, not all contractors may benefit from the bill. Steve Moon, owner of Moon Air Inc., Elkton, Maryland, pointed out that, in his state and many others, there are not enough incentives available to sway schools to make upgrades.

“In the great state of Maryland, I have been unsuccessful at acquiring any commercial upgrade work due to energy rebates,” Moon said. “They are just not offering enough to make HVAC interesting for the expenditure, now that budgets are so tight. The lighting aspect of it is banging hard, and we are doing well there. Also, upgrading small refrigeration equipment is attractive to them. The big stuff, not so much. I would not be interested in this at all as I see it today.”

What’s Next for the Bill?

The bill, which passed with bipartisan support in the House, has been attached as an amendment to the Shaheen-Portman energy-efficiency bill, which also has significant bipartisan support. However, due to partisan politics in the Senate, the Shaheen-Portman bill has stalled several times.

“After the elections, there’s a higher probability of this passing, but the Shaheen-Portman bill is the vehicle by which it would become a law,” McCrudden said.

Phoenix agreed that the Shaheen-Portman bill “is probably not going anywhere, at least until after the election.”

Still, Ames said he thinks there is hope for the bill. “There’s enough support for this that I think it will eventually pass, even if it doesn’t pass in the short term.”

“The focus now has to be on the Senate,” McCrudden said. “It either has to get through the Senate as a stand-alone bill or join in as a part of Shaheen-Portman.”

“It’s a pretty simple bill, and a lot of what we’re doing is imagination and hope,” Phoenix said. “But it’s a simple bill that could have some significant contributions to the economy.”

Publication date: 8/4/2014

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