American Schools at Head of Class in National Sustainability Efforts

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Businesses are often cited as the standard for turning sustainability efforts into profit margins, but two recent developments suggest schools are at the head of the class in reducing emissions reductions and turning energy efficiency into cost savings. As government budgets tighten, places of learning are turning into places of sustainability.

This trend is most apparent in America’s public schools. Dedicated funding for the nation’s K-12 education system seems to get further reduced with every federal, state, and local government austerity measure. Faced to do more with less, schools are turning to energy efficiency in large numbers.

To that end, 84 percent of the 210 U.S. organizations recently recognized in the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 ENERGY STAR Leaders program are listed in the “K-12 education category.” To receive this recognition, school districts must have either achieved at least a 10 percent increase in overall energy efficiency, or have their entire portfolio of buildings ranked within the top 25 percent of energy performance nationwide.

Most promising, the movement toward high-efficiency education is found in almost every state. ENERGY STAR Leader school districts are located in 36 states and every region of the country. Minnesota is the surprising leader of the pack, with 31 school districts, followed closely by more traditional efficiency leaders New York State and California.

The single biggest efficiency leader was Indiana’s Decatur County Community Schools, which reached the remarkable 60 percent efficiency improvement level in 2011, the first organization of any kind to hit that mark. The school’s actions have already saved over $1 million in energy costs and 3,000 metric tons of CO2 — equivalent to the annual emissions of 600 vehicles.

While the efforts of K-12 schools are significant, they are not alone. America’s colleges and universities are also taking steps to increase the use of renewable energy and reduce their emissions. The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), an agreement between 674 higher education institutions, recently released a report quantifying their environmental impact.

ACUPCC efforts have significantly reduced participant carbon footprints. Of the participating schools, 599 have submitted greenhouse gas inventories, which reported collective emissions of 28 million metric tons. 451 have submitted climate action plans, 306 institutions have set a climate neutrality target by 2050 or before, and 93 have pledged neutrality by 2030. In addition, the ACUPCC network has purchased nearly 1.3 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of renewable energy credits, the third-largest single buyer in the U.S.

“This is the first major U.S. sector to commit to climate neutrality, and the first time since WWII that higher education in the U.S. has collectively stepped forward to take on a major societal challenge without waiting for some external entity to request it or fund them,” said Dr. Anthony Cortese, president of Second Nature, the lead supporting organization of the ACUPCC.

Indeed, well-established alumni and funding networks have had a major impact — ACUPCC signatory schools have secured an average of $2,343,787 from outside sources to fund sustainability efforts.

Image courtesy of Izismile

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