Guest columnist Sara Ross: A clean energy vision for our schools

  • A solar array at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Earlier this year, and in response to youth advocacy, town leaders leveraged support from Rep. Mindy Domb and a state grant to commission a feasibility study of 10 town sites for solar.

What has emerged is a clear message — our schools are positioned to lead on clean energy. And what’s more, a clean energy future is now well within our reach. New incentives have created “irresistible economics” and financing models require zero upfront capital investment.

Solar energy systems installed at our schools can generate millions in energy savings, avoid tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and, when paired with energy storage, ensure that those buildings are protected and able to protect the most vulnerable community members as we contend with extreme weather and power outages. The vast majority of schools across the country go solar with no upfront cost.

If solar were a medicine, and our schools the patient, it would be unethical to withhold this treatment. It’s a no-brainer.

Solar is just one piece of a clean energy vision for our schools. As superintendents and school boards across the country are beginning to recognize, schools have a transformative role to play when it comes to climate change, and left unaddressed, their students and communities will suffer the consequences. Here are the big ideas.

First, schools need a plan to stop burning fossil fuels and switch to healthier, more efficient electric options. Today, we burn fossil fuels to heat our buildings, provide hot water, run our school kitchens, and operate our bus fleet. Burning fossil fuels in our schools damages our students’ health and undermines their ability to learn. Replacing our aging fossil gas boilers with heat pumps is the single most impactful action our schools could take to contend with climate change.

If we installed the same heat pumps at the high school that we have planned for the new elementary school, we’d have a system that is at least three to six times as efficient as the current gas one, and our students, educators, and staff would have air-conditioned buildings. Access to cooling has quickly emerged as an equity issue in schools. Hot school days are already responsible for 5% of the gap in standardized test scores between students of color and their white counterparts. As a school serving a diverse student body, providing access to cooling would position Amherst to disrupt this particular pattern of inequity.

Second, embracing climate solutions in our schools is important for student learning. With 57% of teenagers reporting that climate change makes them afraid, learning about climate solutions is key to staving off climate anxiety. When schools embrace visible climate solutions like solar and electric buses, they create opportunities for on-site, hands-on learning. And sustainability isn’t niche. The global transition to clean energy has been dubbed the greatest wealth creation opportunity of our generation. Has our learning agenda evolved to prepare our young people to thrive in this new world?

Lastly, now is the time to act. We would have insulated our school budget from rising electricity prices had we joined the nearly one in 10 public K-12 schools that have already gone solar. Today, new incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act and our utility will massively defray the upfront costs. The new building code that is set to take effect in July 2023 will drive all buildings, including schools, to ditch fossil fuels and “electrify everything.”

And, of course, as with all things climate, with every passing day of status quo, we march our children closer to the tipping points that threaten to unravel our habitable planet.

Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, recently said: “Those of us who have caused [climate change] by pouring carbon into the air for several generations need now to, at the very least, move very quickly to make sure that our lives, our institutions, our societies aren’t making that problem still worse.”

Today, the outdated fossil fuel machines in our Amherst public schools are making the problem still worse. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s move with all haste to embrace the clean energy solutions and the financing options that are sitting on the shelf waiting for us to act.

Sara Ross is a parent of students at the Amherst Regional Middle School and Amherst Regional High School, a graduate of both, and a co-founder of UndauntedK12, a national nonprofit striving to activate K-12 schools in the work to safeguard a habitable planet.