Fun fact, schools spend more than $8 billion each year on energy, more than they spend on computers and textbooks combined. Take a second for that to sink in. Schools are major consumers of energy. They represent about 8% of energy use in the US. We know that burning fossil fuels accelerates global warming and pollutes our air and water. And if you’ve ever been inside a school using a steam boiler in the winter it’s like something out of the Goldilocks story: Some rooms are too hot, some rooms are too cold, and very few are just right.
Yet it seems like schools are either not making this connection or they aren’t aware of the alternatives. The same goes for the architects working with the schools.
This is a lost opportunity of the highest magnitude. Capital improvement projects in schools are rare, so when it comes time to replace heating systems, it really is a once every thirty years opportunity. Instead of going for geothermal or heat pumps, more often than not, schools are sticking with the status quo. One could argue, that upgrading an aging boiler system to a higher efficiency hot water system is an improvement. But that’s like saying upgrading your old pick up truck that gets 20 MPG for a Prius that gets 40 MPG is the environmentally right thing to do. Sure, it’s better than the truck, but why wouldn’t you just buy an all electric vehicle. At this point in the game, when our carbon budget is rapidly running out, we should only be looking at systems that use electricity, and that electricity should then in turn come from renewable sources.
What follows is the story of how one school chose a different path.
Back in 2018, I learned that my son’s school needed to replace its aging heating system, and the replacement, at a price tag of $1.6 million, would still use heating oil. I started to get involved and asked if we could look into geothermal. A school twenty minutes from us, Putnam Valley, had geothermal in the middle school, high school, and recently, the elementary schools. I thought, wow, if this school next door can do it, and save 50,000 gallons of heating oil annually, surely our environmentally minded school can do it too! We even took a small group of students and staff to tour the school and learn more about geothermal. Alas, it was not so simple.
In the spring of 2018, I attended a meeting with the school staff and lead architect to talk about going geothermal, but after conversation, it didn’t really seem to go anywhere. I was told it was just too expensive and there would be no pay back. I was also told we couldn’t use heat pumps in our school because of the “New York climate” (I later discovered a school in New Hampshire, same size as ours, that had successfully switched to heat pumps.) But when I asked for actual concrete numbers, and where the numbers were coming from, no one could give me any.
So I started showing up at school board meetings a lot, persistently pursuing the topic of geothermal. Finally, the architect threw together a ballpark figure, geothermal would be $500,000 to $ 1 million dollars more than the $1.6 million dollar hot-water heating system they proposed. When the school board learned of the increased expense whatever enthusiasm started to cool. They were reluctant to ask voters to pay more money for a heating system that “could be viewed as a non-essential element of the project” to quote the former President of the Garrison School Board.
While I had many sympathetic school board members interested in alternatives to the oil heating system, the problem seemed to be the school architect dragging their feet. I was feeling incredibly frustrated by the whole process. I asked Ethan Timm, an architect from The Figure Ground Studio, about why it seemed like there was so much resistance to looking at alternative heating systems. He said, “Ideally you need more collaboration between architects, mechanical engineers and possibly even a consultant specializing in building science. Often it’s a one way street: Architect draws it, engineer designs it, then it goes out to bid. There’s not much room in there for feedback and revision.”
So it appeared I was a little too late to the party, by about two years. But I wasn’t going to give up just yet. I convinced the school board to let voters decide which system they wanted, they agreed to that scenario. For a time both geothermal and the hot water system would be on the bond vote, but the school lawyer stepped in and said it would be “too confusing” for voters, to give them options, and geothermal was removed. I was back to square one.
Undeterred, I rallied parents and had them speak before the school board about climate change and about neglecting the external costs of burning fossil fuels. I started a petition in the community asking the school not to go with fossil fuels and got 850 signatures. I wrote letters to the editor. Somehow a local named Peter Davoren, head of Turner Construction, got wind of our plight and stepped in to help. He had his architects and engineering team evaluate the school and come up with a plan. They settled on using Variable Refrigerant Flow, a HVAC technology that runs on electricity, and can both heat and cool the school. The school accepted this redesign, that was more expensive but 25% more energy efficient.
And here is where persistence paid off: Just last week, voters approved the capital improvement project!
As I try to sift through the takeaways from this whole process, this is what I recommend:
- Get involved early in any capital improvement projects. Build a group of parents, teachers, and students who will ask the school to commit to replacing any new heating system with one that runs on electricity.
- The School must be crystal clear on its priorities when working with the architects, if energy efficiency, building performance, and transitioning off fossil fuels is a goal (and it should be) it needs to be said right up front, before pen meets paper.
- It’s always the hardest to be an early adopter. It gets easier when you can point to other schools as examples.
- Get the school to commit to transitioning to 100% renewable energy. I wish I had known about the Sierra Club’s 100% Clean Energy School Districts campaign back when I first started pushing for geothermal. I highly recommend downloading their tool kit.