03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Clean Energy Jobs Should Go Swimming

This is part of a series of brief posts on 'clean energy jobs' opportunities for sparking meaningful employment, quickly, in the United States as discussed in Clean Energy Jobs: Stimulate Me.

Clean Energy Jobs Go Swimming: $300 million per year for 10,000 jobs

Legislation is, they say, analogous to making sausage. Sometimes, in the mixing and mashing, seemingly well-intentioned and sensible options can create counter-productive situations and leave many valued goods on the table. One small example of this could open the door to creating employment, lowering costs for state & local governments (including educational institutions, improving 'customer' satisfaction, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

When it came to the stimulus package earlier this year, as part of a politically popular move limiting programs eligible for funding, "swimming pools" were explicitly excluded from ARRA funding mechanisms. While, amid serious economic stress and government investment to keep the economic from continuing in freefall, it might have seemed morally appropriate to do this, this restriction simply flies in the face of reality and good sense.

Around the country, whether in schools (K-12 and universities/colleges) or public parks/rec facilities, state and local governments (and independent public recreation authorities) own and operate swimming pools. Many of these, especially as one moves away from the sun belt, are indoor pools heated for good portions of the year. For example, Fairfax, Virginia, has nine recreation centers with indoor swimming pools. Dependent on many factors, the annual heating bill for one of these (large) pools can run $10,000s to even $100,000s.

Such utility bills typically continue, often under the radar, even amid reduced local tax revenues as a 'fixed expense' with seemingly no good choice: continue to operate the pool (perhaps saving some $s by lowering the temperature a few degrees and angering swimmers; perhaps raise entry fees significantly and cut into usage) or close it down for months at a time. Few localities choose the shutdown option, unless near bankruptcy, thereby almost guaranteeing above-inflation rate increases in the utility bills even as local revenues fall. Another option, however, exists -- one that was precluded by the ARRA restrictions and that should be opened with a jobs package: solar hot water.

Solar hot water for pools represents one of the fastest payback options for renewable energy systems. Without even accounting for any outside assistance, according to the Department of Energy:

A solar pool heating system usually ... provides a payback of between 1.5 and 7 years, depending on your local fuel costs. They also typically last longer than gas and heat pump pool heaters.

"Between 1.5 and 7 years" to payback? That is, roughly, stating that there is an ROI of between 10 and 60+ percent per year of energy savings versus the cost of installation. This, as well, doesn't account for reduced maintenance costs and lower future system replacement costs.

This Energy Smart choice, however, falls through the cracks in many local government planning systems. Solar isn't well understood and, often, viewed as some form of 'enviro-liberal luxury' item. Utilities come out of a different budget than infrastructure investments. Utility costs are often undifferentiated, thus the $100,000 to heat a pool is simply wrapped up in the $300,000 (example) of utilities to run a rec center. And, amid economic constraints, investment budgets for 'enviro-liberal luxury' items are often the first to go to the wayside.

Here, however, is a straightforward way for the Federal government to spark local business activity throughout most of the nation, help local governments reduce operating costs (SAVE MONEY!) while providing better public services (warmer pools at lower cost), foster improved infrastructure for renewable energy projects throughout the nation, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create jobs.

At a rough estimate, putting in solar hot water heating in an enclosed public pool might run roughly $100,000 on average. A Federal program could combine direct payments along with additional assistance: a direct payment of 50 percent along with, as necessary, a ten-year loan program for the remaining portion. In essence, this would provide local governments a path toward $10,000s a year in savings on every heated pool's operating costs, money that could be used to keep teachers and policemen on payroll or pay for other threatened local government expenditures (and/or reducing the burden on taxpayers).

Such a program would be a highly effective leveraging tool as part of Federal assistance to state and local governments. The Federal assistance would pay back, a high rate of return, in terms of local and state governance costs. And, it would foster jobs.

Due to the leveraging amount, assuming that the Federal costs would end up (at the high end) at about 66% of installation costs, every million invested should support about 30 direct and indirect jobs (which, of course, includes the teachers not fired due to local government savings).

Let's take that Fairfax County recreation department case: nine large indoor pools. Assuming (almost certainly low) that each pool costs $50,000 to heat each year, this totals some $450,000 in annual heating costs. Pool heating percentage of total costs varies, but a 50 percent figure is a reasonable working number: thus, annual savings would be $225,000 (or roughly 3 teachers with benefits). Let us assume that it would take $1 million to put in solar hot water heating for all of these large pools. The upfront costs for the solar heating would be paid back in just under 4.5 years (at a 22.5% per year savings), assuming that energy costs don't rise. If the Federal government paid half the costs, the County would see its investment paid back in just over two years. A two-year, 40% per year, payback seems quite sensible for funding via a bond program that might cost the County's citizens about 5 percent per year in interest. And, by the way, this does not count the various tax and other economic benefits that would accrue back to the County of Fairfax, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the Federal government due to business activity, employment taxes, and other financial implications of such a program.

A $200 million per year program, assuming the Federal government's costs total 66% on average, would mean some $300 million per year invested in solar heating for public swimming pools (local & state rec centers and parks; K-12 schools; public universities). In just a few years, the majority of the nation's public heated pools could be converted to solar heating. A $400 million program ($600 or so total investment) would support the conversion of roughly 6000 public swimming pools around the nation. This program could, as well, easily be extended to Federal pools (such on military bases), assistance to non-profit pools (notably private educational institutions), and assistance to backfitting solar heating to commercial pools (such as water parks). (The program could, as well, be expanded to energy efficiency in these facilities from pool covers to more efficient pumps or otherwise.) Let us say, with that additional effort, a $300 million / year program would leverage to $500 million / year and rapidly transform the heating of America's large pools from fossil fuels to renewable energy and increase energy efficiency in America's recreational swimming.

Clean Energy Jobs Go Swimming: $300 million per year for 10,000 jobs Clean Energy Jobs series posts: