Salt Lake school board vows to create ‘more environmentally sustainable schools’

This article was originally posted by Deseret News on June 20, 2020.
Written by Marjorie Cortez.

SALT LAKE CITY — With the objective of establishing “healthier, more environmentally sustainable schools,” the Salt Lake City Board of Education has adopted a resolution that calls on the school district to meet all of its energy needs with carbon-neutral energy no later than 2040.

The resolution includes incremental goals that build on ongoing efforts by district staff to reduce energy consumption and lessen the school district’s carbon footprint.

The resolution, approved by unanimous vote, calls on the school district to use 100% clean, renewable energy in its electricity sector by 2030.

The amended resolution sets a goal that the district meets 100% of its energy needs with carbon-neutral energy by 2040 at the latest.

Under the resolution, the school board will form a sustainability task force of community members, students, energy experts, partners and district staff by Oct. 1. Paul Schulte, the school district’s executive director of auxiliary services, will lead the group.

The task force will have a year to develop an action plan that addresses school construction, energy efficiency, recycling, using the least toxic cleaning products, minimizing use of hazardous pesticides and herbicides, and exploring the creation of a farm-to school program to bolster the nutritional value of the district’s school lunch program, among other initiatives.

The development and passage of the resolution was led by students from Salt Lake’s East, West and Highland high schools in collaboration with Utah Sierra Club and Sierra Club’s Climate Parents program.

Andie Madsen, a leader of the Students for 100% Clean Energy team, said the group’s efforts were complicated by the recess of in-school learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the group persevered in meeting with school district officials, other stakeholders and among themselves.

Greg Libecci, energy and resource manager for the Salt Lake City School District, stands with solar panels on the roof of Mountain View Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

“I think we all stayed motivated because I think we knew that this is going to be a dark moment in our history. If we don’t work hard now, there’s going to be maybe some unfortunate consequences later,” Madsen said.

On a personal level, Madsen said she wanted to push the initiative forward because it represents an opportunity to improve the city’s quality of life in terms of reducing emissions, bolstering sustainability and conserving energy.

The group was also motivated by a desire to improve Salt Lake City’s air quality.

“I think young people understand that this is where we want to make our future. This is where home is going to be in the next couple of years. We should be doing everything we can to make sure we’re not producing as much emissions so that our air quality can be sustainable for the future,” she said.

Madsen credited Utah Sierra Club and its Climate Parents program for their help and guidance and thanked the school board for being receptive to the clean energy team’s efforts, particularly during a global pandemic when “they have a lot on their plate.”

Students submitted a petition in support of the resolution to the board that was signed by 800 district students, parents and staff.

Less than 24 hours after the board meeting, the student team was back at work planning its next steps.

“People in our generation are facing a lot of uncertainties, from COVID-19 to the climate crisis, and this is a win we’re happy about because it demonstrates our commitment to building the strength of our communities,” Madsen said in a statement.

Some younger high schoolers on the team will help sustain the effort after leaders like Madsen graduate and head off to college.

Greg Libecci, Salt Lake School District’s energy and resource manager, said the resolution will “boost” the district’s existing sustainability efforts.

“It’s nice to know we’re now aligning with the city and their ambitious goals,” said Libecci.

The school district has a growing number of facilities that have solar installations and as new schools are built, each has a solar component.

The school district has developed “robust controls that allow us to manage the buildings properly so things are off when they don’t need to be on,” Libecci said.

Implementing energy efficiency measures such as light emitting diode or LED lighting conversions has resulted in for a 60% energy saving, “which translates into savings to the bottom line,” he said.

“As I say, ‘Let’s keep the money in education,’ ” he said.

The school district’s recycling efforts are vastly improved from a decade ago, which also help save resources and money, he said.

Libecci said he also marveled at the students’ efforts because he’s experienced other student-led efforts that start with great enthusiasm but “fizzle.”

Not so with Clean Energy Team.

“My goodness, these kids really pulled it together collaborating from three high schools,” he said.

Board vice president Nate Salazar paid tribute to the students for taking responsibility for moving the school district and city in a positive direction.

“I’ve said it before that young people are leading the charge around the world on this very issue of climate change and our students in Salt Lake City School District have followed suit. I’m very impressed with that,” Salazar said.

Team member Emma Johnson, who has attended Salt Lake schools start to finish, said the resolution and resulting changes will be a legacy to future generations of students.

“This entire movement has been so inspiring to me because it has shown me how big of a difference a group of high schoolers can make literally in the future of our school district and even our city,” she said.