What Are Schools Doing to Go Green?

Climate Fwd:

What Are Schools Doing to Go Green?

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This week, it’s a back-to-school edition: We start off with news about schools using clean energy. Then, if you’re a student, you might be interested in how young plaintiffs are suing the government for climate action. And, if you’re a parent or teacher, see below for book recommendations for kids.

Solar-powered schools and electric buses

Photo Illustration by The New York Times

Schools around the country are taking an interest in clean energy, putting solar panels on roofs and swapping diesel school buses for electric versions.

But it’s not always easy for a school to go green. Here’s a look at some recent developments.

Solar power

In many ways, schools are a natural fit for solar power: They tend to require electricity only during the day, when the sun is shining, and they often have ample space on their roofs and grounds for solar panels.

More than 5,500 schools across the country have installed solar power arrays to help power their buildings, the Solar Energy Industries Association said in a report last year. That’s about 5 percent of K-12 schools in the United States, and their solar capacity has almost doubled over the past three years, the report says.

“The cost of solar power has come way down, and that’s been the No. 1 driver” of solar in schools, said Ed Gilliland of The Solar Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that helped produce the report. “Whereas before, there tended to be a lot of small solar power arrays put up for educational purposes, schools are now embracing them as money-saving investments.”

California has led the way, with almost 2,000 schools installing solar panels. But solar power is reaching schools across the country.

The tiny Tri-Creek school district in Lowell, Ind., started a solar program in 2013 after a group of eighth graders asked the board to explore alternative energy options. The district has installed 120 solar panels that together shaved $140,000 off energy bills in the 12 months through July, said Dana Bogathy, the district’s business manager.

The district’s 3,300 students learn to monitor the panels’ performance and have even carried out experiments — for example, what happens when you throw mud on a solar panel? (Answer: Performance goes down.)

Financing is an obstacle. The Tri-Creek district issued bonds to cover installation costs and has also used a system that allows users of solar energy to sell the excess electricity back to the local utility. But Indiana, along with several other states, is phasing out that program.

Tri-Creek isn’t deterred. “We’re looking into getting a wind turbine,” Ms. Bogathy said.

Electric buses

Electric buses have been popping up in cities around the world, led by China. Now, school districts in the United States are exploring the option.

There are compelling health reasons to go electric: About 95 percent of the 480,000 school buses in the United States currently run on diesel, exposing children to soot and other harmful pollutants.

But electric buses are still twice or three times as expensive as conventional buses. In theory, schools could recoup some of that money over time through lower fuel and maintenance costs, but the upfront price tag remains a deterrent.

That’s starting to change, though. States like Illinois and Vermont have recently announced pilot programs for electric school buses, using hundreds of millions of dollars from a settlement that Volkswagen paid after it was caught cheating on pollution tests. California has deployed more than 150 electric buses under a program passed by lawmakers last year.

There are still plenty of kinks to work out: A recent pilot study in Massachusetts found that while electric buses had enough range to travel routes between charges, they sometimes saved less energy than expected and had frequent mechanical problems.

But if battery prices keep falling, experts say, the economics will become more favorable. A report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicted that “e-buses” would soon spread faster than electric cars and make up 84 percent of the bus market by 2030.

So, the school bus of the future may arrive sooner than you think.

Students go to court

Lawyers and youth plaintiffs after a hearing in Eugene, Ore., in July.

How do you do, fellow kids? As a new school year starts, you’re probably thinking about the extracurricular activities you’ll stuff your résumé with — I mean, gain valuable life experience from. How fondly I look back on my own time as second vice president of the Ball High School student council! That work, as valuable as it almost certainly was, looks kind of puny compared to what some young people are doing: trying to save the planet by suing the government to force action on climate change.

I’ve written some stories about the best-known lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, which involves 21 “youth plaintiffs” suing the federal government to limit climate change. Their argument is that protecting the world from the worst effects of climate change involves a constitutional right to life, liberty and property.

This call for the government to act relies on what is known as the “public trust” doctrine, the idea that the government must protect certain natural resources for its citizens. It’s an unusual and new argument; the environmental law group Our Children’s Trust originally brought the suit during the Obama administration, but it has carried over into the Trump administration.

Unlike lawsuits brought in recent years by local and state governments against fossil fuel companies over the costs of climate change, the young people’s suits aren’t seeking money. Instead, they demand government action against climate change, which would be a tall order for a president who has called climate change a hoax. The Juliana case will go to trial Oct. 29 in Eugene, Ore.

Our Children’s Trust says it has taken legal action in all 50 states and is supporting active legal cases in nine states. A state judge in Washington dismissed a suit there last month, but the group said it planned to appeal. It is also working with partner organizations in other countries, including Norway, the Netherlands and Pakistan.

There are many other ways to help the environment besides getting involved in lawsuits; see, for example, the story in this newsletter about the eighth graders who convinced their school board to use alternative energy sources. Good luck finding your own way to save the planet this school year!

These days there are lots of resources for parents and teachers who want to teach kids about climate change. We asked a group of people immersed in the issue — including journalists, scientists and activists — about their favorites. Here’s a sampling of what we found:

Classic books

These stories have stood the test of time, and they remain meaningful bedtime reading choices for many parents. Thomas Kerr, a longtime energy analyst now at the International Finance Corporation, the private sector part of the World Bank, put “The Lorax” at the top of his list. “It’s why I got into the environmental movement in the first place,” Mr. Kerr said of the Dr. Seuss story about a town that was ruined when a greedy young inventor cut down all the Truffula trees to create Thneeds. Also getting shout-outs in this category were “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” the 1978 best seller about a town where food falls from the sky; and “The Magic School Bus” series, which has been described as a string of educational field trips from the ocean floor to the eye of a hurricane.

Science for beginners

For older kids, parents tended to veer toward lively, clear books that lay out scientific facts about everything from the melting Arctic to ways of reducing your carbon footprint. Scott Waldman, who writes about climate change for E&E News Climatewire, an energy policy news outlet, suggested “What is Climate Change,” part of a series of biographies and nonfiction books by Gail Herman. Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, recommended “A Global Warming Primer” by Jeffrey Bennett, which she described as explaining complicated science “in a clear and easy-to-comprehend manner.” For something completely different, Rachel Kyte, the United Nations special representative for sustainable energy, suggested for young adult readers “The Carbon Diaries” by the British writer Saci Lloyd. It’s a about extreme carbon rationing under an increasingly totalitarian government.


Finally, parents had a lot to say about teaching their kids how to care for the planet. There were a number of recommendations for “Drawdown,” which models and ranks 100 solutions to climate change, as well as “The Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution” by Mary DeMocker, which includes tools, resources and projects to engage kids on climate change. And finally, there’s my personal favorite idea, from Jean-Pierre Rodrigue, a Canadian clean energy policy researcher. It’s a direct action, not a book: “Plant a tree and discuss.”

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