How many schools have a sustainability plan? The answer is not nearly enough. While many school districts are rising to meet the demand, especially with the influx of funding for sustainability projects from the federal government, the majority don’t know where to start.
What many school leaders might not realize is that sustainability plans tackle a broad range of challenges at once – from costs savings, to smoother operations and creating secure, modern learning spaces. And with the rising cost of energy looming as a major cost center for school districts, sustainable upgrades also improve long-term budget stability. Another big benefit is greater student retention. As parents demand greater and greater value from the schools they select, districts that are acting on climate change set themselves apart.
For schools that are unsure of how to begin prioritizing sustainability, start by taking a close inventory of your facilities. Find places where minor changes can have a huge impact and then grow from there. The benefits will only continue to compound.
The benefits of sustainable infrastructure to K-12 schools
As school leaders consider their 2024 sustainability plans, they should look to how early adopters have benefitted.
Positive environmental impact is one reason why sustainability investments make sense. US school buildings currently emit as much carbon as 18 coal plants annually, accounting for around 10% of non-residential carbon emissions in some states. Climate-related extreme weather is also now routinely shuttering underprepared school facilities, with 54% of public school districts having recently experienced a major natural disaster. But as more schools make sustainability plans, the positive impact on students’ health, safety, and future will be huge.
Here are other ways schools are reaping the benefits of their investments into sustainability:
Reduced energy costs bring long-term budget stability –
Sustainable infrastructure comes with significant financial and budgetary advantages. Investing in energy-efficiency upgrades and renewable energy allows these schools to reduce their utility costs by an average of 30%. Onsite renewable energy is more attractive than ever thanks to significant direct-pay incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act. Renewable energy also opens the door for new revenue from net-metering agreements, where utility companies buy any excess energy that is created. Additionally, implementing sustainable infrastructure can lead to long-term savings on maintenance and operational expenses, as these more modern systems often require less upkeep.
Sustainable upgrades improve extreme weather resilience –
Sustainable technologies like solar energy, battery storage, and microgrid systems allow school buildings to keep the power on during natural disasters and other disruptions to the power supply. And during days with extreme temperatures or wildfire smoke, more energy efficient HVAC systems and building envelopes allow schools to maintain healthy operations. Preparing schools for extreme weather means fewer lost learning hours, better indoor air quality, and overall safer learning environments for students and staff.
On campus sustainability boosts engagement with STEAM –
When schools incorporate their on-campus sustainability upgrades into the curriculum, it has a positive effect on academic outcomes. Students get to see what they’ve learned about in the classroom in action. These real-world learning experiences increase student engagement with STEAM, as well as prime their interest in green careers. And research shows that students educated about climate change go on to reduce their future carbon footprints.
Visible investments in the future set school districts apart –
As open-enrollment policies become more common, schools are now having to think critically about how to attract and maintain attendance. Parents are more likely to select schools that invest in high-visibility areas like great athletics, modern learning environments, and secure facilities. More and more parents also have high expectations about the role schools can play in creating a more sustainable world. Creating modern, sustainable facilities allows school districts to meet all these priorities at the same time.
Easy ways for school districts to start the sustainable transition
Beginning to tackle sustainability may seem daunting, but it doesn't have to be. There are many easy ways for school district leaders to get started. School buildings offer significant potential for small sustainability initiatives to have a big impact, given their high energy usage and large physical footprint. Start by thinking about resource conservation and minimizing energy waste. Energy efficiency upgrades, like switching to LED light bulbs, are a simple place to start.
Schools can create a much bigger sustainability impact by modernizing major building systems like HVAC, building automation, water and building envelopes. And don’t forget that these systems are interconnected. Taking a comprehensive approach to renovate, repair and reengineer these systems to work together more effectively will produce the biggest possible cuts to utility and operational costs.
Finding the funding to make sustainable upgrades can also be a barrier to entry. To overcome this barrier, energy savings performance contracts (ESPCs) are one increasingly important funding avenue for schools to consider. They allow schools to make infrastructure upgrades that increase energy efficiency and reduce their carbon footprint, while avoiding prohibitive upfront costs. In tandem with ESPCs, district leaders can turn to the plethora of sustainability grant opportunities currently available. Options include the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program, the DOE’s Renew America’s Schools grant, or the new investment tax credit (ITC) provision for public entities created by the Inflation Reduction Act.
Create healthy, modern learning environments with sustainable infrastructure
Sustainability plans will look different for every district. But no matter the approach, districts that prioritize sustainable infrastructure are investing in the health and success of their students. Every small step can make a big impact on creating a sustainable future. So, take the plunge with one small change - it's easier than you think!
Schneider Electric has helped hundreds of schools nationwide begin the transition to more sustainable facilities. From consulting to funding to construction, we support our clients along their entire sustainability journey. To learn more about what’s possible, find a time to speak with one of our experts here.