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7 steps schools can take to benefit the climate and save money

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7 steps schools can take to benefit the climate and save money

Anya Kamenetz, The Hechinger Report

Dec 20

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Solar panels surround a school courtyard in Cambridge, Mass. Billions in federal aid could help schools green their infrastructure — if they can figure out how to tap it. (Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

This opinion piece about greening schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Anisa Heming has been working on making schools more sustainable for a decade and a half, now as director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, a Washington nonprofit. And she’s never seen a moment of opportunity quite like this. “It’s an out-of-body experience, honestly,” she said. “Communities are demanding it, federal money is here, and the districts that didn’t do the prep work are scrambling.” 

Since President Joe Biden took office in early 2021, three different giant federal spending packages have passed: the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act. Each includes grants and tax credits school districts can use to benefit the climate while also, typically, saving money in energy bills over time. There are billions and billions for boosting building efficiency; replacing boilers, ovens and other appliances with clean-running electric models; solar and battery installations; electric school buses; charging stations; and more. 

In some cases, districts can make upgrades with no upfront cost at all. 

The enthusiasm is palpable: The Environmental Protection Agency received so many applications for electric school bus funding, it doubled the amount it originally planned to award, to nearly $1 billion the first year. (More money is coming, up to $5 billion for that one program.)  

So if you are a member of a school community — student, parent, teacher or leader — here are seven steps to claim your piece of the clean, green pie. “Don’t wait. Don’t hesitate. Act and figure it out,” urged Bryant Shaw, sustainability manager for the Dallas Independent School District.

. Set your goals.

LeeAnn Kittle, the director of sustainability for Denver Public Schools, said the most important step is to develop clear, actionable goals, “and do not deviate.”  

In Denver, students organized for a year and a half and succeeded in getting the school board to adopt a new climate policy in April 2022. (Here’s a toolkit they created to explain how they did it.) They are pushing for a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 levels by 2050. 

Jonathan Klein of Undaunted K12 added that with these brand-new federal incentives in place, existing climate or environmental initiatives may no longer be ambitious enough  — zero-carbon alternatives might even be less expensive up front, as well as cheaper and better in the long run. 

2. Get reputable help.

Denver Public Schools, a large district at 90,000 students, hired one Colorado-based firm to create its sustainability plan and a second to do the financial impact assessment. The district is also hiring a grant writer to shake loose the new federal dollars. 

Nonprofits provide information, connect you with other districts that are further along the path, and support school board lobbying efforts. These include Generation 180, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green SchoolsUndaunted K12, Rewiring America’s Rewiring Schools, the Electric School Bus Initiative and the Aspen Institute’s This Is Planet Ed (where, full disclosure, I’m an adviser).  The federal Department of Energy has a Better Buildings Solution Center with a list of K-12 success stories and lots of other resources. 

For-profit companies will actually do the work. An energy service company, or ESCO, can start with an initial building energy audit, often for free, which then can become the basis of your federal grant application. An ESCO may be able to help with financing upgrades through what’s known as a “performance contract” — the district repays the company over time with the money it saves on monthly energy bills. 

Here’s a list of qualified ESCOs from the Department of Energy. 

Start with efficiency.

Solar panels are shiny, electric buses are smooth and quiet, but the biggest bang for your climate buck in most cases is going to be efficiency. 

The opportunity is huge. Energy costs are the second-largest line item for most school districts, after salaries, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. 

Kate Crosby is the energy manager for the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, in Massachusetts. Not many districts have such a position, but in her case it more than pays for itself.  

“We’ve saved $500,000 per year in electricity through conservation compared to 2009,” she said. “Our electricity use is down 35 percent.” 

The district did this through weatherization and LED lighting, but also through simple, unsexy changes, like powering down the schools’ HVAC systems during vacations. Efficiency upgrades covered by federal grants can include insulation and upgraded windows, as well as new HVAC systems, which can be covered under American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds.  

4. Then look to electrification.

To cut building emissions to the max, gas stoves in the cafeteria and oil-burning boilers need to be replaced with cleaner, safer, lower-maintenance electric versions. Typically this will happen over time, as appliances come to the end of their useful lives. 

You’re going to be hearing a lot about a “heat pump” — an appliance that can be used to heat or cool and is more efficient than a traditional electric heater. The Inflation Reduction Act offers a 30 percent tax credit for ground source heat pumps, also known as geothermal (which take advantage of the relatively constant temperature underground to save even more energy). That credit can be up to 50 percent in certain cases.

Then solar.

Now we get to the big, visible stuff: solar panels. They can go on rooftops in urban areas or on the ground if your school has space, or be installed as a canopy over a parking lot or play area. When paired with battery storage, solar can turn schools into resilient emergency shelters in case of a weather event, as happened in the sustainable planned community of Babcock Ranch, Florida, after Hurricane Ian. 

Just under 1 in 10 schools in the country have solar today. Most have opted for a “power purchase agreement.” This is more or less a turnkey option where a solar developer buys, installs and maintains the panels. The district pays less for electricity each month with zero upfront cost. But this arrangement is clearly allowed by law in only 30 states. (The map is found at Generation180’s site.) The new federal grants and tax credits sweeten the deal for schools to purchase their own solar in states that don’t allow power purchase agreements. The Solar Energy Industries Association is one place to look for a partner. 

6. Then transportation.

Jennifer Rennicks of the Electric School Bus Initiative at the nonprofit World Resources Institute points out that these buses don’t belch diesel fumes, which are a known carcinogen. Instead of buying new buses, some transportation providers are saving money by retrofitting existing school buses. 

7. Talk about it!

The school leaders I spoke with all said that informing and communicating with the public and their fellow districts, and integrating climate action into the curriculum for students, were key to their continued success. “At the end of the day this is behavioral change,” said LeeAnn Kittle. “You’ve got to engage [people] in the process of what that can look like, vs. dictating it for them.”  

Peter Light, superintendent of the Acton-Boxborough district, said: “This wouldn’t have happened without our community’s values. For us, it’s a bit of a rallying cry and something that can excite people. It’s been worked into our buildings as something that can help us educate students. It creates a culture.”  It’s a win-win on every level, he said: “It’s not only good from a philosophical perspective, it’s good business, because I would rather spend that money on teachers than gas surcharges.” 

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