OU Seeks to Cut Energy Costs for Schools and Shuls

by | in Inside the OU

By Roslyn Singer

Ask any school or shul: Energy costs money. It costs money to heat and cool a building and to turn the lights and computers on and off.

OU Advocacy has launched a two-pronged attack against mounting energy costs, one geared specifically for the State of New York and a larger nationwide initiative that will help synagogues and day schools throughout the country.

“Our mission at OU Advocacy is to advocate for the interests and values of our community and to help our community institutions and other nonprofit organizations in the broader Jewish community,” says Nathan Diament, executive director of OU Advocacy.

“While most people don’t think about how much it costs to keep the lights on, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that nonresidential buildings in the United States consume more than $200 billion in annual energy costs. For shuls, utilities are often the costliest budget component, while for day schools, estimates suggest that utility costs are the most significant budget expense after personnel costs. We believe that the energy bills we’re working on could have a significant impact on day schools’ and shuls’ bottom lines.”

In New York, OU Advocacy introduced the Energy Parity Act in order to end the “utility discrimination” practiced by the New York Power Authority (NYPA) against private schools. NYPA provides energy-efficiency programs and electricity directly to many public schools throughout New York State at substantially reduced rates—but these programs and reduced rates are not available to private schools. If passed, the Energy Parity Act would give private schools access to the same energy-efficiency programs and discounts that public schools receive. Cosponsored by Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn) and Assemblyman Sean Ryan (D-Buffalo) and supported by a bipartisan group of New York State legislators, the bill is expected to be taken up in the next legislative session.

Tamar Eisenstat (center), an OU Advocacy-NY lay leader, discusses the benefits of the Energy Parity Act for Jewish day schools at a press conference in Albany. She is surrounded by members of the New York State Legislature as well as by Jeff Leb (to her left, front row), director of political affairs for OU Advocacy-NY, and Maury Litwack (to her right), director of state political affairs and outreach for OU Advocacy. New York State Senator Simcha Felder is in the back row, second from left.

Tamar Eisenstat (center), an OU Advocacy-NY lay leader, discusses the benefits of the Energy Parity Act for Jewish day schools at a press conference in Albany. She is surrounded by members of the New York State Legislature as well as by Jeff Leb (to her left, front row), director of political affairs for OU Advocacy-NY, and Maury Litwack (to her right), director of state political affairs and outreach for OU Advocacy. New York State Senator Simcha Felder is in the back row, second from left.

“Our calculations are that New York Jewish day schools’ utility costs could be half of what they are currently,” says Maury Litwack, director of state political affairs and outreach for OU Advocacy. “Should the bill become enacted as proposed, a school with a monthly electricity bill of $2,500 would save an estimated $15,000 to $21,000 annually, while a school with a monthly bill of $40,000 would save an estimated $240,000 per year.”

Tamar Eisenstat, a member of the Executive Advisory Committee for SAR Academy and High School, a Jewish day school in Riverdale, New York, commented that SAR spends more than $600,000 annually on electricity. “It is our estimate that this legislation will save us nearly 50 percent, or $300,000 annually, on our electric bills. This money will go directly to support our families and teachers,” she says.

Jeff Leb, director of political affairs for OU Advocacy-NY, adds that the strong bipartisan support for the bill underscores how the rising cost of energy and the need to become more energy efficient impacts all schools, regardless of whether they are public or private.

On the federal side, OU Advocacy is supporting the Nonprofit Energy Efficiency Act. Introduced in the United States Senate by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Hoeven (R-ND), the nationwide initiative is a broad and bold plan to establish a national grant program through the Department of Energy in order to help nonprofit organizations make the buildings they own and operate more energy efficient. The Act would enable America’s schools, youth centers, houses of worship, hospitals and museums to reduce their operating costs, lessen their impact on the environment and bolster America’s energy independence.

Under the proposal, $50 million would be authorized for each fiscal year from 2014 to 2017 for the grant program. Nonprofit organizations could apply for grants of up to 50 percent of the total cost of their energy efficiency program, with a cap set at $200,000.

“Typically, when companies upgrade to become more energy efficient, they receive benefits in tax credits, a particular perk that nonprofits are unable to take advantage of,” explains Diament.

“When nonprofit organizations—such as schools or shuls—want to improve or upgrade their buildings, they are often hard-pressed to find the money that is needed at the front end for that project,” says Diament. “Installing a brand new HVAC system in a large building can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. For a school or shul to fund this project, it either needs to—somehow—find the resources in its operating budget, which is difficult, or find a donor who thinks it’s a wonderful idea to donate such a large sum of money for a new heating and air conditioning system. Even the most dedicated donors are not so excited about donating money for a new HVAC unit or boiler,” says Diament.

Since its impact will be felt well beyond the Jewish community, OU Advocacy is building a broad coalition of support for the Nonprofit Energy Efficiency Act. Supporting organizations include the National Council of Churches, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, YMCA of the U.S.A., the Association of Art Museum Directors and more. The bipartisan legislation is currently being considered as an amendment to a larger energy bill sponsored by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH).

Roslyn Singer is director of communications for OU Advocacy.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2013.

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