San Francisco Schools Take Aim at Reducing Carbon, Energy Use

San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is responsible for educating over 56,000 students from grades kindergarten through 12th, preparing them for the future. In late September, the Board of Education took action to ensure that future would be sustainable by passing the Carbon-Neutral Schools Resolution. The resolution makes SFUSD the first in the nation to adopt fossil fuel reduction targets in an effort to curb impacts from global climate change. Among other strategies, the district’s Carbon Reduction Plan includes a zero net energy (ZNE) requirement for new buildings which strives to cut natural gas use in school buildings by half by 2030 and eliminate it altogether by 2040.

“Currently, 70% of the district’s greenhouse gas emissions come from its buildings and 30% from its vehicles, including buses. We’re setting targets that will dramatically reduce our carbon footprint by 2040,” said Matt Haney, the resolution’s co-author.

Since 2008, SFUSD has reduced energy usage by 22%, natural gas usage by 28%, and water usage by 29% in its 120 buildings. “But, the targets the Board has voted on means we have to accelerate our efforts, which is fitting given the urgency of climate change,” said SFUSD’s Director of Sustainability Nik Kaestner.

Courtesy: San Francisco Unified School District

Strategies in the Carbon Reduction Plan developed by the SFUSD Sustainability Office include designing new buildings with the ZNE goal of using only as much energy as can be generated onsite whenever possible, plumbing for rainwater collection where feasible, and transition its vehicle fleet to cleaner fuels. SFUSD will strive to achieve the following goals:

  • Reduce gas usage by 30 percent by 2020, 50 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2040.

  • Reduce water usage by 30 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2030.

  • All new SFUSD-owned vehicles shall be emissions-free.

  • Fuel all diesel-powered buses with renewable diesel by 2020.

  • All SFUSD-owned vehicles will be electric or powered by low-carbon fuels by 2030.

  • Generate all of its power on site by 2050.

  • Meet 50 percent of water demand via rainwater by 2050.

The road to passage of the Carbon Neutral Schools Resolution had an interesting beginning, and that’s where Kaestner — an instrumental force in its passing — got involved. The decision to craft a plan was motivated by Kaestner’s participation in a California Public Utilities Commission-sponsored workshop on zero net energy schools in 2016. After that event, he conducted a quick assessment of one of the district’s new buildings, Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School. It turned out the school was on average one of the highest energy users among middle schools in the district.

“It was very concerning that our newest building, which was designed to be 20% more efficient than code, was using that much power,” said Kaestner. “We realized we needed to work on a higher plane than just beating code. Zero energy seemed like a good choice.” That realization sparked Kaestner’s desire to understand what the district could do to improve the energy performance of the school buildings.

A new approach for meeting ambitious goals
As Kaestner learned more, his curiosity turned into determination and he decided to share his ideas on ZNE construction with others. He pulled together his facilities department, maintenance department, city partners, utility companies, and school architects and presented the challenge of meeting California’s statewide ZNE goals for commercial new construction and existing buildings. The architects presented case studies to make the point that the technology exists today to meet ZNE performance.

Courtesy: San Francisco Unified School District

Kaestner created a working group of interested staff to craft an implementation plan. The team visited low-energy buildings in the San Francisco Bay Area and reviewed different low-energy technologies. In addition to planning for the construction upgrades, the team paid special attention to commissioning and fine tuning the building once in operation, as well as training buildings and grounds staff so they would know how to use the new equipment. Occupants will also eventually need to be trained to ensure they use the systems correctly.

One of the group’s main goals was to identify technologies and processes that would make the achievement of these ambitious targets realistic in a resource-constrained public school district setting. For instance, the team realized that there was some anxiety surrounding the switch from gas-based heating to electric heat pumps. As a result, Kaestner and his team decided to emphasize lighting and envelope upgrades in the short term and tackle heating systems only after reducing load. This not only minimized the initial fiscal impact of the ZNE strategy, but also gives maintenance staff time to gain greater understanding of new systems before having to operate them. In addition, new staff with the requisite experience can be hired over time.

Upping the game on ecoliteracy
With the implementation plan in place, the next step would be educating the occupants — teachers and students who use the buildings — on how they can save energy. In addition to effective operations, the goal is to develop ecoliteracy throughout the school, an awareness that goes beyond energy conservation to reduced emissions in transportation and water savings. This effort could include school awards programs, participation incentives, school assemblies, adding new curriculum, taking field trips, and attending webinars or sustainability fairs.

“The main focus is ecoliteracy as opposed to energy reduction because we haven’t brought our buildings to a point where occupants have a high degree of control over the performance of their building. So we wanted to create a program where everyone can feel successful while sharing our districtwide efforts with our students, staff, and the wider school communities,” said Darya Soofi, SFUSD’s conservation manager.

Soofi is presenting to staff in every school operating in the district on how they can participate in the program, which works to ensure that teachers are inspired to find something they are interested in taking action on. “Our hope is to have a long resource list of curriculum, field trips and classroom presentations as a way to spur sustainability activities that a lot of teachers can get excited about,” said Soofi.

Ultimately, Kaestner would like to see other school districts follow suit and launch their own programs. He hopes they can learn from the hurdles he’s faced, and has presented about his experiences at schools up and down the West Coast and at conferences across the country. He hopes to spark other districts into action by laying out a path and encouraging them to tweak the SFUSD model to suit individual constraints and preferences. “The first step,” Kaestner says, “is to find a champion within the district to get educated and share the knowledge with others.”

“We have a responsibility to our students to lead by example. Hopefully this will inspire other cities and school districts to do the same,” Haney said.

by Reilly Loveland, NBI Project Analyst