Local schools are our most powerful mechanism for shaping the future. Ideally, they equip the next generation with essential skills and knowledge, promote equity and, through free breakfast and lunch programs, ensure that no child goes hungry.
Think about what local schools could accomplish if we harnessed their potential to fight climate change.
As my company works with a growing number of school districts to transform the inefficient, environmentally damaging, and socially inequitable school transportation system, I have come to believe that schools are an underutilized lever to protect our planet. . Plus, by greening our schools, we can actually improve the lives of students and save communities money that can be channeled into teaching, learning, enrichment, and other priorities.
Climate change, the defining issue of our time, requires large-scale, concerted and transformative change on a global scale. Yet it is at the local level, multiplied across the country and around the world, that millions of community actions can make a global difference. In the United States, the 140,000 public and private K-12 schools are the perfect setting for such community action.
Consider the data: America’s public schools occupy two million acres of land and produce as much greenhouse gas pollution as 18 coal-fired power plants. According to the US Department of Energy, US K-12 school districts could save at least a quarter of the $8 billion spent each year in energy costs simply through smarter energy management. And by reinventing America’s $28 billion student transportation industry with electric vehicles and efficient software-enabled routes, we can reduce pollution while simultaneously improving the lives of students, families, and district officials at national scale.
I have dedicated my professional life to seizing this latest opportunity, working with school districts, their communities, and an ecosystem of technology partners to transform the yellow school bus system. Based on the progress we have made so far, I have been thinking a lot over the past few months about other ways in which we, as an enterprising and entrepreneurial nation, could leverage the civic power of our local schools to meaningfully address climate change while generating cost savings and quality of life improvements. Here is my four-step prescription for maximizing the impact of this larger opportunity.
Top notch new construction
The US Government Accountability Office estimates that 54% of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools. This is a great opportunity to incorporate the best principles of green design.
A National Renewable Energy Laboratory report, however, found that even when new schools are built, they may not be more energy efficient than older ones. Too often, local decision makers try to limit construction costs without considering long-term savings on cooling and heating bills.
By adopting long-term thinking that prioritizes sustainability for new buildings, we can seize an important opportunity to serve our students and our planet, while saving districts money that can be put back into the classroom. class. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a non-profit organization, complete renovations of commercial buildings can generate up to 40% more energy savings – which translates into lower utility bills. lesser public – than one-time improvements.
Experts estimate that retrofitting all public schools in New York City, the nation’s largest school system, could save $70 million a year in energy costs. And the Center for Green Schools estimates that if all schools were retrofitted or built using basic energy efficiency principles, total energy savings alone would easily reach $20 billion over the next decade.
LED lights, pool covers and other simple renovations
Schools spend more money on energy than on computers and textbooks combined, according to the US government’s Energy Star program. Up to 30% of this energy is used inefficiently or unnecessarily.
That’s why in Anaheim, California, Katella High School installed LED lights with motion sensors and dimmers throughout its campus, as well as tankless water heaters and a high-efficiency chiller. Between 2016 and 2021, the school reduced its energy consumption excluding transport by 28% and its greenhouse gas emissions by 57%. For her efforts, Katella was named a 2022 Green Ribbon School by the US Department of Education.
In Downers Grove, Illinois, Community High School District 99 (another Green Ribbon winner) installed LED lighting in gymnasiums, installed efficient heating and cooling systems, and placed covers over swimming pools when they are not used. The district reduced heating costs by 28% and, by slowing evaporation, the amount of water used in swimming pools by 38%.
The power of solar
Schools occupy an enormous amount of real estate, making them prime candidates for solar panels. At Elms Elementary School in Jackson, NJ, solar panels generate a substantial portion of the 130,000 square foot school’s energy needs. The school’s 980,000 kilowatt solar field, combined with its geothermal heat pumps, has contributed to an estimated 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
In Arkansas, the Batesville School District was able to raise teacher salaries by up to $9,000 a year after installing nearly 1,500 solar panels and making other energy efficiency improvements. By reducing non-renewable energy consumption and water consumption, the district expects to save more than $4 million over 20 years.
Some schools are taking energy efficiency to the next level by creating solar-powered “micro-grids” that can power communities when natural disasters cause grid outages. In California, the Santa Barbara Unified School District is partnering with the nonprofit Clean Coalition in an ambitious effort to create solar microgrids on district campuses. The project is designed to provide much-needed resilience to an area prone to wildfires, mudslides and earthquakes.
Reinventing student transport
Student transport is a $28 billion industry and one of the biggest contributors to climate change, with 27 million students traveling twice a day in buses that still run mostly on diesel. The problem is compounded by outdated and inflexible route planning systems, resulting in circuitous routes, half-empty vehicles, and many hours of wasted time for students.
According to a new report, we could reduce emissions by about 8 million metric tons by replacing the US fleet of diesel school buses with electric vehicles. Like the solar panels in Santa Barbara, electric school buses have the potential to power entire communities when the power grid is overloaded. And like Batesville, Arkansas, solar panels, electric buses and other tech efficiencies can create millions of dollars in savings.
My company, Zum, partners with school districts to modernize student transportation with electric buses and cloud-based digital bus routing systems. In San Francisco, for example, the school district is on track to save $15 million over five years through the partnership, while reducing emissions and student commute times.
Green schools are a clear win-win
Skeptics might argue that our country’s educators have enough to do without worrying about environmental sustainability — that every penny of school funds should be used to close the equity gap and pass on the knowledge and skills that American students need.
Time and time again, however, studies show that when schools introduce environmentally friendly measures, students benefit in myriad ways. Green schools improve air quality and limit student and teacher exposure to toxins. Research has shown that students perform better on tests when their school buildings have natural light and excellent ventilation. And contrary to popular belief, many of these measures generate substantial financial savings.
Green school districts are one of those rare examples of local action that benefits our students, our communities and the planet. If we miss this opportunity, what are we teaching our children?
By Ritu Narayan, Founder and CEO of Zoom
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