HomeScienceOuter SpaceHow green schools can help save our planet

How green schools can help save our planet

Local schools are our most powerful mechanism for shaping the future. Ideally, they will equip the next generation with critical skills and knowledge, promote justice, and ensure that no child goes hungry through free breakfast and lunch programs.

Think what local schools could achieve if we tapped into 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 unfair student transportation system, I’ve come to believe that schools are an underused lever to protect our planet. In addition, by making our schools greener, we can actually improve student lives and save communities money that can be spent on teaching, learning, enrichment and other priorities.

Climate change, the defining problem of our time, requires large-scale, coordinated, transformative change on a global scale. Yet it is at the local level, multiplied across the country and around the world, where millions of community actions can make a global difference. In the US, our nation’s 140,000 public and private K-12 schools provide the ideal setting for such communal action.

Look at the data: U.S. public schools occupy two million acres of land and produce as much greenhouse gas pollution as 18 coal-fired power stations. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, elementary school districts in the U.S. could save at least a quarter of the $8 billion spent on energy costs each year simply by using smarter energy management. And by reinventing the $28 billion U.S. student transportation industry with electric vehicles and efficient routes with software, we can reduce pollution while improving the lives of students, families and county officials across the country.

I’ve dedicated my professional life to seizing this last 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’ve made to date, I’ve been thinking hard over the past few months about other ways we, as an entrepreneurial and entrepreneurial nation, can harness the civic power of our local schools to meaningfully address climate change while generating cost savings and quality of life improvements. Here’s my four-step recipe for maximizing the impact of this wider opportunity.

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Best-in-class new construction

The U.S. 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 an excellent opportunity to integrate best-in-class green design principles.

However, a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that even when new schools are built, they may not be more energy efficient than old ones. All too often, local decision-makers try to limit construction costs without considering long-term savings on the cooling and heating bill.

By adopting the 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. According to the non-profit organization American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy allows extensive retrofits from commercial buildings to 40% more energy savings — which translates into lower energy bills — than one-measure 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 renovated or built according to basic energy efficiency principles, the total energy savings alone could easily reach $20 billion in the coming decade.

LED lighting, pool covers and other easy retrofits

According to the US government, schools spend more money on energy than on computers and textbooks combined Energy Star Program. As much as 30% of this energy is used inefficiently or unnecessarily.

So Katella High School in Anaheim, California, installed LED lights with motion sensors and dimmers throughout the campus, as well as tankless water heaters and a high-efficiency chiller. Between 2016 and 2021, the school has reduced energy consumption excluding transportation by 28% and greenhouse gas emissions by 57%. For her efforts, Katella was named a 2022 Green Ribbon School by the United States Department of Education.

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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 on swimming pools when not in use. The district reduced heating costs by 28% and, by slowing evaporation, reduced the amount of water used in swimming pools by 38%.

The power of Solar

Schools take up a huge amount of real estate, making them prime candidates for solar panels. At Elms Elementary School in Jackson, NJ, solar panels generate a significant 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 could raise teacher salaries to $9,000 per year following the installation of nearly 1,500 solar panels and other energy efficiency improvements. By reducing non-renewable energy 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 “microgrids” that can power communities when natural disasters cause grid outages. In California, the Santa Barbara Unified School District is teaming up with the nonprofit organization Clean Coalition in an ambitious effort to create solar-powered microgrids on campuses across the district. The project is designed to provide much-needed resilience to an area prone to wildfires, mudslides and earthquakes.

Think again Student transportation

Student transportation is a $28 billion industry and one of the biggest contributors to climate change, with 27 million students traveling twice a day on buses that still run primarily on diesel. The problem is exacerbated by outdated, inflexible route planning systems, resulting in cumbersome routes, half-empty vehicles and many hours of wasted student time.

We could cut emissions by about 8 million tons by replacing the U.S. diesel-powered school bus fleet with electric vehicles, according to a new report. Like Santa Barbara’s solar panels, electric school buses have the potential to power entire communities when the power grid becomes overloaded. And just like in Batesville, Arkansas, solar panels, electric buses and other technology-assisted efficiencies can generate millions of dollars in savings.

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My company, Zum, is working with school districts to modernize student transportation with electric buses and digital, cloud-based 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 travel time.

Green schools are a clear win-win situation

Skeptics might argue that our nation’s educators have enough on their plate without concern for environmental sustainability — that every penny of school fees should be spent closing the inequality gap and instilling the knowledge and skills American students need.

However, studies show time and time again that when schools implement environmentally friendly measures, students benefit in several ways. Green schools improve air quality and reduce exposure of students and teachers to toxins. Research has shown that students actually perform better on tests when their school buildings have natural lighting and excellent ventilation. And contrary to popular belief, many of these measures result in substantial financial savings.

Green school districts represent one of those rare examples of local action that benefits our students, communities and the planet. If we let this opportunity pass, what are we teaching our children?

By Ritu Narayan, the founder and CEO of Zum


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