While the Kids are Striking

Adelheid Koepfer

while the kids are striking.jpg

Our local school district promises a “safe, healthy and supportive environment”. At the same time, the schools are part of the reason the kids go on strike, as the energy use of buildings (for heating, cooling, lighting, etc.) is one of the main causes for carbon emissions. “The K-12 sector alone spends $6 billion annually in the U.S. on energy bills, more than textbooks and computers combined, and second only to teacher salaries. Reducing energy usage by 20% across the education sector would result in energy cost savings of more than $3.3 billion that K-12 schools, colleges, and universities can better spend on educating students.” (Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: A Pathway To Zero Energy Schools, 2018) 

So what can we as parents do to make our schools switch to energy efficiency and renewable energy? Reducing schools’ carbon footprint might not be your town’s priority, but saving money usually is. And because schools are the biggest chunk of most municipal budgets, and within this chunk, energy costs come right after personnel, a change in school energy systems is both urgent and promising. Saving tax money while doing something for the environment— what’s not to like about that? 

Maybe you’re lucky enough to live in a proactive district, like the Los Angeles Unified School District. Their board recently passed a resolution committing the district to “be powered entirely by clean, renewable electricity by 2030, and [to] electrify its buildings and school buses by 2040” (Sierra Club Insider News: Clean Energy Triple Play for L.A. County Schools, December 2019). Now, my school district won’t go that far yet, but the idea of saving money through better energy efficiency sure got their attention. 

So here is what you can do: 

  1. It’s budget season. Go to the next meeting of your local Board of Education (BoE) or equivalent entity, or straight to your superintendent, and ask for a copy of the proposed budget. Take the time to familiarize yourself with how the budget is structured. Interesting items can hide in chapters like “buildings and grounds”, “maintenance” and the like, or be listed under individual schools. My district also distinguishes between operating budget (recurring costs, basic needs to provide service) and strategic plan (capital projects, larger renovations or improvements). 

  2. Look for any allocations related to energy use: heating and cooling (furnace, A/C, oil tanks, boilers, pipes, ventilation); lighting (retrofit, replacement, new installation); building envelope (windows, walls, siding, insulation, roof); actual energy costs (fuel and electricity used throughout the year); automatization (control of different usage zones and times, such as classroom vs cafeteria). Even things like resurfacing athletic fields and parking lots are opportunities. Roxbury Community College (Boston, MA) has geothermal wells beneath and a solar canopy above their parking lot. 

  3. Once you’ve found all the relevant line items, go back to the BoE meetings, or your superintendent (or whoever decides on the budget), ask to discuss those items, and suggest healthier and more efficient options. For example, the line item that got me started was “remove and replace oil tanks in 5 schools.” While removing in-ground oil tanks after 30 years is a state mandate, replacing them is not! Heat pumps would be much more efficient. Your strategy could look like this: 

    1. Ask for energy benchmarking: how much are we using right now? (EnergyStar offers a free benchmarking program!) ​

    2. Ask for a comprehensive energy audit. that goes beyond replacing some lights (ASHRAE level 1) and gets at least an energy survey and analysis (level 2) or even a detailed, investment-ready analysis of improvements, including options for renewable energy (level 3). (ASHRAE is the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and has set standards for commercial energy audits).

    3. Ask for a clear energy savings goal and a feasibility study. Lighting and insulation are the so-called low hanging fruit and may save money with little investment needed, while a new heating/cooling system will be more expensive, but is often required anyway within the next few years and will bring larger savings over time.

    4. Get the funding (see below). 

  4. For support in this endeavor get organized, get informed, and keep asking questions at the board meetings. ​

    1. Find other parents through PTO/ PTAC, other local initiatives or environmental groups who will work with you.​

    2. Talk to individual board members who might be interested and help you steer the mood from within the board.

    3. Look up other school districts in CT or in the Northeast and see what cool projects are already in the making.

    4. Get familiar with funding options through EnergizeCT, CT Green Bank, your local energy provider, or alternative options like Power Purchase Agreements, Energy Saving Provider Contracts, CT-Renewable Energy Credits etc.

    5. Look into regional, statewide or national resources, like the Sierra Club’s Climate Parents, the Northeast Energy Efficiency Network (they offer free webinars and on-site presentations), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory,  and the Better Buildings Initiative. 

So, while the kids are striking,let’s get informed, let’s get organized, and let’s start changing our schools’ energy usage! 

Please also support legislation in the 2020 Connecticut General Assembly asking that our kids learn about climate change, about the world they will inherit, and the best way to deal with it—in all schools in Connecticut.  

 

Adelheid Koepfer is a mother and a Sierra Club member.

Note from the Editor:  Sierra Club's Climate Parents is working to move school districts around the country to 100% clean energy. For more information and resources, visit https://www.sierraclub.org/climate-parents

Photo: Students striking to demand climate action.

Photo credit: Julian Meehan