'Low pay and miserable conditions' help California schools afford lighting upgrades

When economist Adam Smith espoused the invisible hand to guide private enterprise in serving the common good without government intervention, he did not foresee what it would take centuries later to install LED lighting that leads to the public benefit of energy savings.

At least not at California's Palermo Union School District, where many hands have been on clear display yanking out fluorescent tubes and replacing them with LEDs. Among those entities visibly toiling away at the project: The California Conservation Corps (CCC), an army of state-funded young adults whose motto is 'Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions...and more!'

Low pay? Miserable conditions? That's one way to overcome the high upfront capital costs that can thwart a conversion to LED lighting and to all of the enormous long-term energy and electricity cost reductions it brings. The CCC - known more for fighting forest fires - even provided the energy audit before carrying out the work, reports the Oroville Mercury Register.

It was not the only state hand on deck. The CCC worked with state-funded the University of California Davis on the audit.

And the California Energy Commission paid for most of the costs by tapping funds provided by the California Clean Energy Jobs Act, also known as Proposition 39.  The money included including training CCC individuals in energy efficiency and auditing. 

Prop 39 is providing the district with roughly $100,000 a year over the next five years for various energy savings projects that will also include heating and air conditioning.

But the switch to LED lighting was the low-hanging fruit at the school district in north central California, about 60 miles above Sacramento.

'We found this was the biggest saving and fastest way to save energy,' Palermo Union Superintendent Bryan Caples said. 'The light is better and more efficient.'

Other partners included investor-owned utility PG&E – which itself received state aid a decade ago to help bail it out of bankruptcy – and a private energy consultancy called Richard Heath and Associates.

PG&E provided rebates.

Superintendent Caples appreciates the sacrifices.

'It’s been a work in progress for the last year and a half,' he said. 'It’s a great partnership with PG&E and CCC. We really couldn’t have done it without their help.'

He estimates that the district of seven schools - preschool through 8th grade on a total of four locations - will save between $35,000 and $45,000 a year.

Jason Bougie of Richard Heath said that without the Proposition 39 funding, it would have cost Palermo Union School District $240,000 to redo its lighting system at all four campuses.

The article did not state how much the lighting cost, although all those hard working, regimented 18-to-25 year-olds, who are also learning about energy efficiency in the process, will help keep the expenses down.

Whatever the costs were, one thing that should be visible before too long will be the savings payback.

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Photo is a screenshot from a California Conservation Corps video. More videos about the CCC's energy-saving troops here.