With a federal windfall incoming, Virginia should require school districts to build to green standards

The solar panels powering Arlington, Virginia’s Discovery Elementary School, seen through the windows of a science classroom. Photo by Ivy Main

More than $4.3 billion in federal stimulus dollars will be flowing to Virginia this year as part of the American Rescue Plan, with cities and counties in line for another $2.7 billion. In a joint statement in May, Governor Northam and Democratic leaders laid out spending priorities that included rehabilitating and upgrading the infrastructure in public schools. The General Assembly plans to meet for a special legislative session in August to allocate the funds. In addition to the federal money, Virginia also finds itself in the happy position of having surplus funds of its own to spend.

As it stands now, the federal funds cannot be used for new school construction, a restriction that upsets school officials in areas with aging schools and no budget to replace them. But whether some money is spent on new schools or not, the General Assembly should not just throw dollars out the door and hope for the best. Virginia has an enormous opportunity to improve student health and learning, correct historic injustices, and meet the demands of the climate crisis, but only if the right standards are in place from the outset.

First, funding should be prioritized to Title 1 schools, which are those with at least 40 percent of children from low-income families. Given Virginia’s history of segregation and racism, a high number of Title 1 schools are in Black communities, while others are in parts of rural Virginia that have been left behind economically.  Title 1 schools on average are older and in worse condition than schools in more affluent areas, and the students are more likely to suffer from asthma and other health problems that are exacerbated by mold and poor indoor air quality. Improving indoor air quality and student well-being should be the primary goals for all new or renovated facilities, and it makes sense to start with the students most in need.

Second, while many localities are attracted to the idea of shiny new schools, in most cases it takes less time and costs less to retrofit an old school that is structurally sound than to tear it down and build new. It’s also better for the environment, even if the new school would be built to a “green” standard. Children don’t need new buildings; they need healthy, high-performing buildings. A beautiful remodel of the historic school their parents and grandparents attended could be just what the doctor ordered.

Third, new or renovated schools should be required to meet the highest standards for energy efficiency, including windows, insulation and HVAC. New construction should also be all-electric, as should most renovated buildings. This maximizes taxpayer savings on energy costs over the lifetime of the building, supports the goal of healthy indoor air, and is consistent with Virginia’s commitment to phase out fossil fuels.

Fourth, if the roof will be new or upgraded, it should be made solar-ready, allowing the school to take advantage of third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) or solar services agreements to install solar panels. Leveraging private capital to pay for the school’s primary energy source stretches construction dollars. These agreements provide financing for solar facilities at no upfront cost and typically save money for schools from the outset. Once the solar panels are paid off, energy bills plummet and savings pile up.

New schools and deep retrofits can even achieve net-zero status affordably, and ought to be required to do so in most cases. Net-zero schools become a source of community pride and offer educational benefits as students learn about energy and how solar panels work. According to a study conducted for Fairfax County Public Schools, the additional upfront cost of building a net-zero-ready school (one that will produce as much energy as it uses once solar panels are added) is only about 5 percent more than standard construction, and the additional cost is recovered through energy savings in under 10 years. Renovating older schools to net-zero costs 11 percent more, but still pays off in 15 years.

Even if we weren’t worried about climate, these standards would make sense for student health and taxpayer savings. Yet today, school districts are not required to build high performance schools, and most don’t. The result is higher operating costs, and in some cases school boards being told that their brand-new schools won’t support solar. Solar companies say it’s probable that solar would be just fine, but this shouldn’t even be an issue. Yet it will continue to be cited as an obstacle if solar-readiness is not made standard.

Our children deserve better. Virginia should seize this year’s historic opportunity to invest in healthy, high-performing schools that are free of fossil fuels and will deliver long-term benefits for taxpayers and the climate.

6 thoughts on “With a federal windfall incoming, Virginia should require school districts to build to green standards

  1. I’m so proud to say that the City of Alexandria requires all city buildings including schools to be net zero energy. So whether it’s done though PPAs or direct solar panel purchase – our new schools and major redevelopments will be net zero energy. Who else is with us?

  2. Most traditional schools have an energy use intensity of around 72 kbtu/sf/yr. To be practical for net zero, you need to be below 25 kbtu/sf/yr. So, the retrofits would need to be deep, indeed. Of course, the main thing is whether the building is worth keeping and making more energy efficient, since net zero is an objective, not a necessity to save money and reduce CO2 emissions.

  3. I really do think that Ivy’s blog should be required reading for every forward-thinking citizen (certainly not Virginians only!) She is consistently thoughtful, practical and well-informed – traits we should all aspire to!

  4. The biggest fallacy of this article is contained within the title. There is no federal “windfall”. It is pure debt spending– and we aren’t even close to living within our means. We now stand at $28.5T in federal operating debt whereas we were only about $1T when Ronald Regan took office in 1980. We are trying to dig ourselves out of an economic hole by printing more and more fiat currency “funny’ money and letting it “trickle down” to our state and local municipalities that are supposed to balance their budgets by statute with tax revenue. This is a fiat currency printing paradigm shift never before seen in U.S. history. Our current debt-to-GDP ratio (130%+_) has far surpassed the previous record of 114% set in 1946 after all out spending to win WWII.

    For those that argue debts don’t matter, then consider we spend nearly a half trillion a year servicing that debt in interest payments alone–largely to other creditor nations like China that we pretend to be in competition with. That is money we could otherwise pay for energy and environmental initiatives, technological improvements, national health care, pandemic preparation, etc. We all pay for this delusional “windfall” foisted upon us by politicians and bloggers alike; especially upon our younger generations who have had absolutely no hand in perpetrating this travesty. being saddled upon them. I find these actions unconscionable.

    A final note: IMO the most green approach we can take is to live within our means, build quality, maintain regularly, and upgrade technologically as practical. We totally ignore these conservative and effective principles in search of short sighted, “shiny new” initiatives that are designed to distract from focusing on solving the real ‘hard work’ problems. Sorry folks, but no easy “windfall” is going to bail us out of this economic disaster. It will most likely make our problems worse.

    Sonny Wiehe

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