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How Green Schools Can Help Save Our Planet

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

Just think what local schools might accomplish if we tapped their potential to combat climate change.

As my company works with a growing number of school districts, I’ve come to believe that schools are an underutilized lever for protecting our planet. What’s more, by greening our schools, we can actually improve students’ lives and save communities money that can be channeled into teaching, learning, enrichment and other priorities.

Climate change, the defining issue of our times, requires large-scale, concerted, transformative change on a global scale. Yet it’s 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 are the ideal setting for such communal action.

Consider the data: American 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 on energy costs simply through smarter energy management. And by reinventing the $28 billion US student transportation industry with electric vehicles and software-enabled efficient routes, we can slash pollution while simultaneously improving life for students, families and district officials nationwide.

I’ve dedicated my professional life to seizing this last opportunity, by 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 achieved so far, I’ve been thinking hard in recent months about other ways in which we, as an enterprising and entrepreneurial nation, might leverage the civic power of our local schools to meaningfully tackle climate change while simultaneously generating cost savings and quality-of-life improvements. Here’s my four-step prescription for maximizing the impact of this broader opportunity.

Best-In-Class 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 an excellent opportunity to integrate best-in-class green design principles.

A report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, though, found that even when new schools are built, they may not be more energy-efficient than old ones. Too often, local decision-makers try to limit construction costs without consideration for long-term savings in cooling and heating bills.

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 poured back into the classroom. According to the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, comprehensive retrofits of commercial buildings can generate up to 40% more energy savings — which translates to lower utility bills — than single-measure improvements.

Experts estimate that retrofitting all of the 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 constructed using basic energy efficiency principles, the total energy savings alone would easily reach $20 billion over the next decade.

LED Lights, Swimming Pool Covers, & Other Simple Retrofits

Schools spend more money on energy than on computers and textbooks combined, according to the US government’s Energy Star program. As much as 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 non-transportation energy use by 28% and greenhouse gas emissions by 57%. For its efforts, Katella was named a 2022 Green Ribbon School by the US Department of Education.

In Downers Grove, Ill., Community High School District 99 (another Green Ribbon winner) put 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, shrunk the amount of water used in pools by 38%.

The Power of Solar

Schools occupy a tremendous 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, coupled with its geothermal heat pumps, have contributed to an estimated 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

In Arkansas, the Batesville School District was able to raise teacher salaries up to $9,000 a year after installing nearly 1,500 solar panels and making other energy efficiency improvements. By reducing its nonrenewable energy consumption and water use, 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 “microgrids” 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 on an ambitious effort to create solar microgrids at campuses throughout the district. The project is designed to provide much-needed resiliency for an area prone to wildfires, mudslides and earthquakes.

Reimagining 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 are still primarily diesel fueled. The problem is compounded by outmoded, inflexible route-planning systems, resulting in circuitous routes, half-empty vehicles, and many hours of wasted student time.

According to a new report, we could cut emissions by roughly 8 million metric tons by replacing the US diesel school bus fleet with electric vehicles. Like Santa Barbara’s solar panels, electric school buses have the potential to power entire communities when the electricity grid is overloaded. And like the Batesville, Arkansas, solar panels, electric buses and other tech-enabled efficiencies can create millions of dollars in savings.

My company, Zum, is partnering 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 commuting time.

Green Schools Are A Clear Win-Win

Skeptics might argue that our nation’s educators have enough on their plates without worrying about environmental sustainability — that every penny of school funds should go towards closing the equity gap and imparting the knowledge and skills that American students need.

Time and again, though, studies show that when schools introduce environment-friendly measures, students benefit in multiple ways. Green schools improve air quality and limit students’ and teachers’ exposure to toxins. Research has shown that students actually perform better on tests when their school buildings feature natural lighting and excellent ventilation. And contrary to popular belief, many of these measures generate substantial financial savings.

Green school districts represent one of those rare examples of local action in which our students, communities and planet all benefit. If we pass up this opportunity, what are we teaching our children?

By Ritu Narayan

Ritu Narayan is the Founder and CEO of Zum, a technology company that partners with school districts to provide a next-generation student transportation solution.

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