Field Report on California’s Pioneering Program to Fund School Energy Efficiency Upgrades


There is a lot at stake in ensuring that California Schools spend their Prop 39 Energy Efficiency funds wisely, not the least of which is providing a comfortable learning environment where students and teachers can succeed.

Jim Maclay of Altura Associates has a lot of experience setting up California K-12 Schools and Community Colleges for Connected Building Commissioning (CBCx). California has launched a tax-payer funded program to provide funds to schools to kick-start their energy efficiency upgrade efforts. Prop 39 funds have Measurement& Verification and reporting provisions that schools and local governments across the country are considering emulating in programs of their own. In this article Maclay shares some learning points regarding this pioneering program.

Prop 39 Pressure Points Critical for California Schools to Get on their Best Energy Efficiency Footing

California Proposition 39 offers schools across the state a leg-up in their efforts to reduce energy costs and carbon emissions, while providing students, teachers and staff comfortable spaces that support learning. Since the 2012 passage of the California Clean Energy Jobs Act, schools can apply to the California Energy Commission for funds to cover energy upgrades. $5B over 5 years has been made available. It’s a welcome program, especially to distressed school districts that have long deferred HVAC equipment maintenance. Energy management and education departments in other states are watching the rollout and hoping that success in California will help inspire similar tax-funded programs for their own schools.

What differentiates Prop 39 funding and makes it more palatable to tax-payers is that participating districts are required to set and achieve energy efficiency targets. It’s not simply free money to buy new HVAC units to replace the old. It has stipulations that challenge school districts to strive toward facilities operations and maintenance best practices. They need to get familiar with the new world of digital controls and data analytics so they can deliver credible tracking and reporting of energy savings. It’s a lot to ask of school business officers, culturally and technologically. Concepts like retro-commissioning and ongoing building commissioning are new territory. And the vision that guides any early investment in automation and control should encompass the eventual addition of renewables. Energy consultancy firms like Altura Associates deal with these topics everyday, and some California school districts are turning to us to walk them through the Prop 39 process. Here is a short list of the pressure points we know exist and some notes on how our oversight can help in skill-building and navigation:

1. Sales Pitch Immunity

Adding to the potential for wrong first steps, the lure of the Proposition 39 money pot has ESCOs, utilities, big equipment vendors and new players in HVAC control, lighting and renewable energy knocking on school district doors to pitch their products and services. All this sales attention and sense of urgency to act on Prop 39 can be overwhelming. Districts do need help putting together their energy expenditure plans as stipulated by the program. But, it would be a mistake to take too many cues from any one service or product vendor. The Prop 39 project team needs unbiased leadership and a focus on the unique situation of the particular schools targeted for funding. Each site may differ in terms of community support structure, the current state of buildings, the particular equipment already installed and, most importantly, the skills of the maintenance and operations staff. Outside vendors with their profit motives are not going to be sensitive to all these factors, so don’t hand over the reins to them.

2. Initial Benchmarking Audit

The Prop 39 process calls for a preliminary benchmarking of the current energy use intensity (EUI) of each school in a district’s portfolio. This step is about gathering utility bill histories to see which properties are showing energy waste tendencies and ripe savings opportunities. Usually you can collect or derive sufficient EUI data without a laborious onsite inspection or conventional ASHRAE audit. The objective here is high-level, portfolio-wide decision-making.

However, be careful about using energy bill data alone: It can be deceiving! Someone unfamiliar with the actual properties might see one building on campus paying $4.50/sqft in energy and conclude that it is operating much less efficiently than surrounding buildings at $2.50/sqft. This might not be the case at all. The former building may hold energy-intensive lab equipment or house a cafeteria with ovens and freezers. Its space may be booked longer hours or have much higher occupant density. So, it could be operating very efficiently while paying $4.50/square foot for energy, while some $2.50/sqft building could be usually empty and wasting energy.

The initial benchmarking audit should not be an opportunity wasted. When combined with the utility data, a few samples of building equipment trend data carefully-selected to represent different operating conditions (occupied vs. unoccupied, school day vs week-end, summer vs winter) can tell a lot about current efficiency. This data is readily available from any school buildings already equipped with digital-control HVAC units or a building automation system (BAS). Districts can use Prop 39 funds to get BAS connectivity into more schools as a first measure. Then they can do Connected Building Commissioning (CBCx) for subsequent EUI benchmarking and measurement and verification (M&V) of any efficiency measures.

3. Energy Management Skills Development

In previous school building booms, commissioning was considered an optional extra cost tacked on to the design and construction process. Many times this step was skipped. So, today it is not unusual for Altura to find in its Prop 39-related school audits that up to half of the HVAC units installed are not operating as they should be. There’s a likelihood that the automation control sequence programs have never been correctly tuned. We’ve found schools where a building automation system is installed, but the facilities maintenance staff is using it as a glorified timeclock. Some facilities people don’t even know how to schedule a BAS to shut down building equipment over holidays and during the summer when school is out. Sometimes you’ll see that the BAS has been ripped out.  The operators don’t understand how to set it up so that it actually makes their job easier. Operator skills development is wise allocation of Prop 39 funds.

Some fortunate districts with community funding have a dedicated energy management supervisor (EMS) that knows how to setup connectivity and use the BAS systems for remote visibility and controllability.  But, often the first-priority investment of Proposition 39 funds is the hiring of someone with up-to-date skills in automation and controls to fill this need. In some cases, if its feasible given the number of properties to oversee, neighboring districts are joining forces agreeing to share EMS staffs. Altura will help train the people that school districts hire or promote into the EMS role.

4. Tracking and Reporting via Connected Commissioning

To fulfill the energy tracking and reporting requirement of the Prop 39 program, school buildings need to be set up for ongoing commissioning. Altura is an advocate of Connected Building Commissioning, or CBCx, which involves the use of cloud-hosted fault detection and diagnostics (FDD) software to remotely monitor a building looking for issues such as space temperatures too high or too low, insufficient cooling capacity, equipment operating after hours, constant cycling problems and other anomalies that signal energy waste. To do CBCx you need to be able to capture and archive trend data from potentially thousands of measured HVAC, water and lighting points in the school building. Basically, the FDD software runs this data against machine rules that define acceptable tolerances for measured points when the building is operating as intended. Certainly, some local school facilities teams are dubious at first about how automated FDD is going to save them time. But, when we show them how it works when set up correctly—how it gives them a new window into the inner workings of the buildings they already know so well—they embrace the concept.

5. Energy Expenditure Plan

Based on the initial audit, school districts submit an energy expenditure plan to the CEC. Beyond guiding Prop 39 teams to prioritize investment in the hardware, software and skills that will put their building operational data at the fingertips of a knowledgable energy management supervisor, Altura brings certain budgeting and financial strategies to the planning table. For example, there is a strict convention that schools have operating budgets and build/capital budgets, and the two cannot be mixed. The former are not large enough to cover the replacement of HVAC equipment and new DDC controls, and the latter are often reserved for curriculum-related projects like classrooms, science labs, gymnasiums. The CEC actually allows schools to bundle HVAC retrofits with other ECMs – that is, combine controls with capital retrofits – to meet Proposition 39 funding criteria. Together, they’ll achieve the 5% energy savings required to qualify. 

Then, because there’s always more work than can be funded by Prop 39, we help schools evaluate financing options for the rest of their energy expenditure plan. For most applicants, Prop 39 money is seed funding, not enough to do all recommended work right away. So it’s important to focus on measures that establish a sound foundation for future steps — eventually steps beyond efficiency, like adding solar and other renewables.

6. RFPs and Bid Review

Altura will oversee a public RFP process for ESCOs (energy service companies) interested in vying for the performance contract and/or solar providers for the power purchase agreement.  We work to encourage a good sample of competitive bids. Then we have life-cycle calculation tools to run analysis on the bids to show the district where their best options are.

when reviewing PPA bids from third-party solar developers, the main things that you look at are the initial rate and then the escalator.  Escalator is based on some assumption the PPA provider makes. Typically, escalators are based on some data source that is not specific to the school district or other building owner that the solar developer is selling to. Here, it will be some sort of California-wide basis. Yet, the escaltor should actually take into consideration what type of building is being retrofit, who the utility is, what the climate is. Escalation rate is a compounding factor too. Average building owners or small-company financial officers don’t know how to navigate such proposals. When Altura is involved in the RFP, we stipulate the escalator, asking “what initial electricity rate can you give us based on this escalator.” This allows us to compare each bidder apples-to-apples. Then we will also ask “Is this a solid provider?  Are they going to be around?” In one case, a school district had a persuasive PPA provider for solar come in off the street.  We advised the school’s Chief Business Officer to not take the offer and instead initiate a public bid process.  In the end, when you compared the deal they went with after the Altura-led public bid, their life cycle savings were 16 times what they would have been had they gone with this first PPA provider.

7. Workflow Design

Another way an expert building commissioning firm like Altura can work to stretch Prop 39 funding to higher levels of payback is by helping school district facilities teams rethink their workflow. For example, one of our K-12 school district customers is using the funding to retrofit its HVAC equipment. Altura is suggesting that each classroom and common space be equipped with wireless thermostats, as an additional component of that retrofit. We’re designing a workflow such that when a teacher says “It’s too warm in my classroom,’  the EMC can remotely view data streams from the equipment to know if cold air is being delivered to the space. If no cold air is delivered, resolution may come in the form of a maintenance call. However many times the unit is operating properly, and the fix may be as simple as asking someone onsite to open a vent. This visibility makes for smarter capital maintenance decision making. That’s powerful.


Due to California’s chronic education budget shortfalls, too many children are sitting in classrooms where heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting is not only inefficient, but non-functional. California Prop 39 is an opportunity for districts to upgrade old HVAC equipment and empower school facilities and operations staffs to oversee classrooms that are comfortable and conducive to learning. With an energy management consultant like Altura Associates on the project team, school districts will not only be able to stretch the funds available, they will protect themselves from missteps and gain expert guidance toward a more solid energy management future.

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