School district spearheads new power revolution

Meatless Mondays, check; biodiesel-powered buses, check

San Diego Unified School District offered a glimpse into the ongoing implementation of its climate action plan on Thursday evening (February 9) with its Family Climate Action Summit.

A crowd of about 100 trickled into the auditorium at Kearny High School, where climate action awards were presented and school-board vice president Kevin Beiser, along with students and faculty from Montgomery Middle School, presented a host of actions that have been taken to "green" campuses across the city.

"Our gardens are outdoor classrooms," said Patrick Meehan, an English teacher at Montgomery. "It's enriching the science curriculum — observation, data collection, keeping good records. This is the beginning of getting kids involved and learning about the environment through their classes."

Meehan and Emalyn Leppard shared progress on their school's garden, which began in 2003 and has grown to include a gazebo for outdoor lessons, a composting program that uses waste from the school's cafeteria, and a greenhouse where students practice aquaculture, raising plants and fish whose growth support one another. Between 400 and 500 students a year participate in one of the garden programs.

Beiser provided more examples of student participation, including a climate learning center implemented at Hoover High and a series of district-wide competitions that have sought solutions from students to improve district campuses.

"Scripps Ranch High School has an environmental science building where students monitor their own windmills," Beiser cited as another example. "They regulate and contribute to make sure the monitoring station is up and running; they also monitor the solar production at their school's facility and track and maintain the underground 80,000 gallon tank that captures rainwater to irrigate the landscape.

"We've worked very hard to create energy-efficient facilities worthy of our children that also provide curriculum about environmental sciences and the growing green industrial sector in the future."

The district adopted its climate plan in July 2015, which mirrors the one later adopted by city government in that it seeks to source 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2035.

"Phases one and two are generating over 10.5 megawatts of power, saving the school district $2.5 million every year on our electric bills, money that we can spend in the classroom on smaller class sizes, music, and arts," said Beiser of the district's existing solar-power installations. "It also saves over 4900 tons of carbon that's not being admitted into the atmosphere."

A third phase, coming in 2018, will add another 5 megawatts of solar generating capacity, bringing total annual estimated savings to $3.9 million. Beiser also ticked off a list of accomplishments related to conservation efforts.

"LED lighting systems have reduced our energy consumption by 1.4 megawatts, saving over $300,000 a year," Beiser continued. "We reduced our water usage by 39 percent in 2016 by implementing a central irrigation monitoring system to adjust watering based on weather data, and to help us identify leaks anywhere in the system."

He added that the district has switched from styrofoam to compostable lunch trays, diverting ten million of them from local landfills annually. Cafeterias have also implemented "Meatless Monday" options, and school buses now run on biodiesel, which emits 90 percent less carbon than traditional diesel fuel.

"We're fortunate to live in a city that's a leader in innovation, sustainability, and alternative energy, and we have one of the leading climate action plans in the country," added city councilmember Barbara Bry (District 1), who attended to talk with parents about the city's climate plan. "It's clear to most scientists that climate change has become a permanent part of our world, and it's not going away. We're a coastal city, so we have particularly large risks.

"All of us as individuals have a role to play. We can walk more, bike more, drive less, consume sustainably, plant native species and shift to drought-tolerant yards, shift to forms of alternative energy…and it's time to start thinking about taking these steps now."

The forum concluded with a presentation from the Sierra Club's Pete Hasapopoulos and Christine Herbeck on community choice aggregation, an energy model in which a nonprofit entity takes responsibility for energy generation while a traditional utility remains responsible for maintaining the power grid and offering consumers who don't want to buy in to the program an alternative power supply.

Proponents have argued that community choice, already in place in several regions of California, hastens the adoption of renewable energy while resulting in lower electricity bills for consumers. The aggregators also pay individual solar producers more for their unused power, which could be a boon for the school district, given its aggressive solar-installation schedule. Such markets, unsurprisingly, have been hotly contested by traditional utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric.

"Community choice energy is the single biggest thing the City of San Diego can do to reduce greenhouse gases; it’s epic in proportion, and that's why we're so dedicated to achieving it here," said Hasapopoulos, who gave an overview of how the system could work. "That's because we would have a new, not-for-profit energy provider that would serve nearly 1.4 million people."

Added Herbeck, who recently began volunteering for the community-choice push, “I had no idea that this issue actually impacted our schools so much. Our school district is paying a lot of money for energy right now, and they've had battles with the utility over this issue. There's an opportunity to save our schools some serious money, and if you're a parent, you know how hard we fight for every dollar that goes back into our classrooms."

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All the hot air the "Wind Tunnel" generates could heat and cool every classroom in the district, saving millions of dollars.

Of course most SD school children are still way behind proficiency levels for reading, writing and math.

But at least they are forced into "meatless Monday's"!


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