Cost effectiveness of NC’s green schools debated

Students at Alston Ridge Elementary School in Cary walk to class in 2014. A new report for the John Locke Foundation questions the energy savings for the school.
Students at Alston Ridge Elementary School in Cary walk to class in 2014. A new report for the John Locke Foundation questions the energy savings for the school.

A new report for the John Locke Foundation says green schools in North Carolina and nationally fall short of their promised energy savings and can be less energy-efficient than traditional schools.

The report looked at green schools in four North Carolina school districts, including Wake and Durham counties, and found most were less energy-efficient than similar schools in their districts. The report, which was released this week, says that the failure of those schools to produce energy savings as promised is an “environmental failure.”

Proponents of green building say that most schools built according to environmentally sensitive principles do save money and can have other benefits for students. The schools cited in the report had received certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system.

The report was written by Todd Myers, environmental director of the conservative Washington Policy Center in Seattle.

“Even when green schools are among the best in the district, the amount of extra (construction) money spent outweighs the savings,” Myers said. “You’re essentially spending a dollar to save a dime at best. But most schools don’t even end up with that much.”

Joe Desormeaux, Wake County’s assistant superintendent for facilities, said schools could have similar results because the district has for years tried to make all schools energy-efficient.

“Our goal is to make a good, energy-conscious school all along whether it has LEED certification or not,” Desormeaux said.

In Wake County, Myers said, Alston Ridge Elementary School in Cary uses more natural gas per square foot than comparable district schools. But Myers adds that it’s not a surprising result because very few of the points that Alston Ridge received for its LEED certification came from the energy efficiency area. The school got extra points in areas such as indoor air quality.

The U.S. Green Building Council cited a 2006 report that found that green schools, on average, use 33 percent less energy and 32 percent less water than conventionally constructed schools.

“Today, nearly thousands of K-12 school projects participating in LEED are saving energy, water and precious resources, reducing waste and carbon emissions, creating jobs, saving money, driving innovation and providing healthier, more comfortable spaces for children to learn, play and grow,” the U.S Green Building Council said in a written statement.

In Durham, Myers said W.G. Pearson Elementary and Sandy Ridge Elementary ranked 10th and 15th, respectively, among 28 comparable district schools in energy cost per square foot. Myers said both schools were also much less energy-efficient than the older Holt Elementary School.

The Green Building Council said there are other benefits to green schools, such as providing more natural lighting, better acoustics and cleaner, fresher, air.

“Green schools emphasize high indoor air quality, remove toxic materials and products and reduce CO2 emissions,” according to the Green Building Council. “Green schools offer welcoming learning environments that lessen distractions and encourage student participation.”

But Myers said at the center of the green schools’ claims is that the higher cost of school construction is worth it because they are helping to save the planet by saving energy.

“School districts and taxpayers are paying extra money to feel good about the environment even if they’re not making schools better for the environment,” he said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui