How schools are combating climate change, from green schoolyards to solar power

In some cases, it's taken a disaster for schools to launch climate initiatives.

November 4, 2021, 11:52 AM

At Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, students can check out a digital energy dashboard to track in real time how much power the school is producing with the help of more than 1,700 rooftop solar panels. Essentially, the amount generated is equal to the annual energy use of the building, making it one of the largest net-zero energy schools in the United States.

Building on the success of Discovery, which debuted in 2015, the Arlington School District opened a second net-zero elementary school, Alice West Fleet, four years later. This school year saw the addition of Cardinal Elementary School, which is poised to be the district's third net-zero energy school, once the building is officially verified, Cathy Lin, director of facilities for the school district, told ABC News.

"Always the intent is to build a sustainable school," she said.

PHOTO: The exterior of Discovery Elementary School is pictured on Sept. 3, 2015 in Arlington, Va. The energy efficient school teaches students in the Eco Action Club about renewable energy, waste recycling and other responsible environmental approaches.
The exterior of Discovery Elementary School is pictured on Sept. 3, 2015 in Arlington, Va. The energy efficient school teaches students in the Eco Action Club about renewable energy, waste recycling and other responsible environmental approaches.
Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

Schools with solar power are on the rise in the U.S. -- growing 81% from 2014 to 2019. Still, the number is relatively small -- just 5.5% of K-12 public schools currently use solar energy, according to a 2020 report from Generation180, a nonprofit that advocates for the transition to clean energy.

The country's K-12 public schools are also "major energy consumers," consuming about 8% of all the energy used in commercial buildings, according to the Sierra Club.

Overall, the education sector has an untapped opportunity to help mitigate climate change, from renewable energy practices to teachings, according to the Aspen Institute's K12 Climate Action initiative, which points to school districts like Arlington's as a success story in demonstrating climate solutions.

"We envision a future where America’s over 100,000 schools are models for climate action, climate solutions, and sustainability, and the 50 million children and youth in these schools are prepared to succeed in the clean economy and lead a more sustainable, resilient, and equitable society," the organization wrote in a recent policy report.

There are challenges to these efforts, including funding, though since schools often serve as shelters during disasters, climate action needs to be supported at local, state and federal levels, the report noted. With communities of color and low-income neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by climate change, advancing equity also needs to be a priority of educators, it said.

Sense of urgency

For current students, there is a "special and important sense of urgency" to address climate change, Vic Barrett, a K12 Climate Action youth commissioner and network organizer for the climate justice-focused Power Shift Network, told ABC News.

"Young people have a really unique perspective on this issue, a lot of us being born into a world that was already past what scientists agree is a sustainable and healthy level of carbon in the atmosphere," Barrett said.

In some cases, it's taken a disaster for school districts to launch large-scale climate initiatives. In January 2018, a series of devastating mudflows hit Santa Barbara County in Southern California, killing nearly two dozen people, destroying homes and knocking out power. The region, which is also prone to wildfires and earthquakes, is particularly vulnerable to power outages, with most of its power from one set of transmission lines.

PHOTO: This aerial photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows mudflow and damage to homes in Montecito, Calif., Jan. 10, 2018.
This aerial photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows mudflow and damage to homes in Montecito, Calif., Jan. 10, 2018.
Matt Udkow/AP, FILE

In the wake of the disaster, the Santa Barbara Unified School District greenlit a plan to harness solar power to help keep the lights on and provide a hub for the community in the event of another extreme weather event.

By the start of the 2022-2023 school year, 14 of the school district's 21 locations will have rolled out solar carports, according to Craig Lewis, executive director of the Clean Coalition, which is helping the school district execute the "game-changing" initiative. The sites aim to be fully net-zero, Lewis said, with carports providing an easier permitting process than rooftops.

Six of the sites will have solar microgrids, which can provide energy independent of the main grid during power outages. Through solar and energy storage, critical services like refrigeration could be powered indefinitely.

"The relative resilience that you get from a diesel generator compared to a solar microgrid ... there's no comparison," Lewis said.

Schoolyard's 'climate superpowers'

When it comes to climate initiatives, the schoolyard is also ripe with potential. Blank asphalt is often the default, but green schoolyards can have a positive impact on student behavior, attendance and test scores, while also helping combat the impacts of climate change, according to Diane Regas, the president and CEO of the Trust for Public Land, which develops park and conservation projects.

"Community schoolyards are really an untapped resource for addressing climate change," Regas told ABC News. "They're kind of hiding in plain sight."

In addition to serving as parks, play spaces and even outdoor classrooms, renovated schoolyards have "climate superpowers," Regas said. Landscaped gardens and porous surfaces help to absorb floodwaters. In New York City and Philadelphia, the Trust for Public Land's schoolyards capture a combined 36 million gallons of stormwater a year. Trees helping to cool down the space are also crucial, as one-third of students attend school in a heat island, according to the Trust for Public Land.

One of the many tasks Darleen Gearhart took on to overhaul the underperforming Sussex Avenue School in Newark, New Jersey, as its new principal nearly a decade ago was improving the school's playground.

"It was all blacktop, there was a brick wall, a big fence, a dumpster, and that was pretty much it," said Gearhart, who is now the director of mathematics for Newark Public Schools. "It was essentially like a student playing on the street."

PHOTO: The grand opening of the Sussex Avenue Elementary School playground in Newark, N.J., on Nov. 25, 2014.
The grand opening of the Sussex Avenue Elementary School playground in Newark, N.J., on Nov. 25, 2014.
Christian Valdez/Courtesy The Trust for Public Land

Working with community members and the Trust for Public Land, they transformed the blank space into a green schoolyard, with a track, basketball court, play equipment, butterfly bush, vegetable garden and more. The space, which debuted in 2014, also features a turf field and porous play areas to help manage stormwater and prevent flooding.

"As people see the impacts, I believe that the default option will become community schoolyards," Regas said. "I think the challenge is, how can we speed that up given the urgency of addressing climate change and the urgency of really improving education for kids who are in elementary school right now?"

Funding challenges

The biggest barrier to implementing climate initiatives is often funding, though leaders like Lin say their schools demonstrate that this work is achievable.

There is a $38 billion annual funding gap in state and local monies to regularly upgrade public school facilities, including infrastructure improvements to help schools serve as emergency shelters and community resources during disasters, according to a 2021 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

"Schools require upgrades to effectively fulfill this important community purpose, including windows that can withstand high winds, structures designed to survive earthquakes, and rooms specifically designed as shelters from tornadoes," the report said.

With no money in their school budget for a green schoolyard, the Sussex Avenue School raised grants and donations in excess of $1 million, Gearhart said.

"Something like this wouldn't ever be in a school's budget," she said.

The Trust for Public Land has worked with school districts to support ballot measures that include funding for climate resiliency, including a $735 million school bond passed last year that would help fund, in part, green schoolyards in the Oakland Unified School District.

"That's a really interesting strategy to try to address the need for growing the capital resources that can come to support schoolyards," Danielle Denk, who leads the Trust for Public Land's nationwide schoolyard work, told ABC News.

Federal money and other options

Federal funding could also help support climate resiliency in public schools, Denk said.

The Department of Education's 2021 Climate Adaptation Plan, which addresses the agency's climate risks and vulnerabilities, noted that climate initiatives can be "very costly," though the department "has only a handful of small grant programs that fund school infrastructure or relate directly to climate change."

"[Education Department] leadership will need to support and fund new initiatives to meet the objectives of climate adaptation, making projects a priority in capital planning," the plan stated.

Legislators are also spotlighting the funding needs. One proposed congressional bill would put $40 billion toward green infrastructure projects and other improvements to help public schools prepare for the impacts of climate change.

PHOTO: Students give a tour of an area with solar panels at Discovery Elementary School on Nov. 4, 2019 in Arlington, Va. The energy efficient school teaches students about renewable energy, waste recycling and other responsible environmental approaches.
Students give a tour of an area with solar panels at Discovery Elementary School on Nov. 4, 2019 in Arlington, Va. The energy efficient school teaches students in the Eco Action Club about renewable energy, waste recycling and other responsible environmental approaches.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

Clean energy has its own economic incentives. Discovery, in Arlington, has "significant" energy savings, with the energy bill less than $15,000 a year, versus $125,000 for a comparable elementary school, Lin said. The Arlington School District has pursued solar power purchase agreements as a further cost-saving measure at its Fleet and Cardinal elementary schools, she added.

Solar microgrids offer an "unparalleled trifecta" of economic, environmental and resilience benefits, Lewis said. The Santa Barbara School District is poised to have nearly $8 million in bill savings alone over a 28-year fixed-rate power purchase agreement for solar energy, according to the Clean Coalition.

"It's kind of a no brainer, if you can just get school districts to start thinking about it," Lewis said.

In other ways, these efforts are priceless, Gearhart said.

"The benefits of this far outweigh any costs," the educator said. "Every child should have a playground that's well-planned, executed and beautiful as part of their school environment."

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