Getting smarter about energy should be mandatory school curriculum

Even as the federal government wrangles over support for environmental initiatives, local school districts are taking meaningful action on energy policy reform.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Every week, it seems, I receive press releases about the measures that this school or that school district is taking to address spiraling energy costs. This week, in fact, the Irvine Unified School District made good on a promise it made back in December 2009 to go solar.

Under a partnership with SPG Solar and SunEdison, the schools have installed more than 7,300 solar panels at 15 different locations. Those systems have a generating capacity of 2 megawatts, or about 2.9 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. That's anywhere from 25 percent to 60 percent of the power consumption for any given school campus in the district.

The installation was funded through a service agreement between SunEdison, which financed the solar arrays, and the school district, which has agreed to purchase the power at specific rates over the course of the next 20 years. SPG Solar handled the design and construction of the project.

In a press release about the project, Gwen Gross, superintendent of the Irvine Unified School District, said:

"This extraordinary partnership with SunEdison and SPG Solar will reduce our energy costs by millions of dollars and shrink our overall carbon footprint. At the same time, we are eager to incorporate new lessons on photovoltaic technology into our curriculum, giving students the opportunity to learn more about solar power as they monitor their own energy usage in real time."

Of course, not every school district has the option of installing a solar energy system to help offset some of its energy costs -- and, subsequently, pour more education money into the place it belongs, the classroom. But schools all over the United States are racing to embrace energy efficiency projects. I have been receiving at least a couple of announcements every month from Ameresco, an energy services company. Here are two examples:

  • This week, Ameresco entered into a pact with the Shenandoah County Public Schools, which is planning energy efficiency upgrades to 10 schools as well as the bus garage and maintenance shop. The project is being funded by a $7.3 million grant under the Qualified School Construction Bonds program. The annual energy savings are projected at $480,000.
  • In early March, the company struck a similar energy savings performance contract with Monroe County School District in Mississippi. These contracts represent a way for schools or organizations to address energy efficiency upgrades without pulling on capital budgets. The savings that the upgrades provide are what offsets the improvements. In this particular situation, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act is covering 25 percent of the costs; the rest is being funded with a tax-exempt lease and from the energy savings. This particular project also draws on efficiency incentives from the local utility company.
  • A contract covering the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns (in New York state) is expected to save $2.5 million over the 18-year contract. It will focus on everything from lighting system improvements and controls to computer load management. As with the other projects, the project isn't expect to tax an already overtaxed school budget.

That's just the tip of the iceberg, as far as I'm concerned. It isn't lost on me that many of the organizations being recognized as top performers under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program are K-12 schools. It just makes sense. I don't know about your community, but mine has had just about all it can take as far as increasing school budgets. It's time for a radically different approach to school administration so that more of our local education budgets can go into meaningful things, like updates to curriculum that will help the United States be competitive 20 years into the future.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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