Did you know that America’s schools release 72 million metric tons of CO2 annually? That’s equivalent to 18 coal power plants or 8.6 million homes. With tight budgets but big sustainability goals, schools need smart ways to green their operations while also saving money. This post shares actionable strategies to cut carbon and costs through improvements in energy, transportation, waste, and more.
Take a look at these 6 impactful steps, and real-life examples, for how schools can shrink their carbon footprint and redirect funds to students.
1. Upgrade to LED lighting
Switching to LEDs provides big energy and cost savings for districts across the country. Replacing traditional bulbs and fixtures with LEDs can reduce lighting electricity usage by 50-75%. And utilities often offer rebates to offset the upfront cost of new bulbs and retrofits. Transitioning to LED is a fast way for schools to shrink their carbon footprint and free up funds to reallocate into the classroom.
Seeking savings, Byron Center Public Schools collaborated with Home Depot Pro on an LED lighting upgrade. The high school retrofit has reduced energy usage by over 1.5 million kWh, saving $170,000 in 18 months. With installation costs recouped in 4 years, the savings will get reinvested in students.
2. Improve building insulation, heating, and cooling
Schools also waste billions on energy losses from inefficient buildings. Up to 25% of their energy spent doesn’t actually heat, cool, or power classrooms––it’s lost through drafty windows, mismanaged HVAC systems, and poor insulation. By plugging these “leaks,” districts can significantly shrink their carbon footprint and reinvest savings into students. Quick wins include adding insulation, sealing air gaps, upgrading HVAC controls, and performing regular maintenance. Tackling waste through improved insulation and equipment pays dividends for both the planet and budgets.
Billions of dollars are spent on energy that never reaches classrooms, but is lost through leaks, poor insulation, and mismanaged systems. It’s like money spraying out of a hose. Schools can cut waste by upgrading insulation, sealing gaps, optimizing HVAC controls, and conducting regular maintenance.
A recent analysis found half of districts surveyed plan to use ARP ESSER III funds for HVAC upgrades. With nearly $26 billion expected for school infrastructure improvements overall, HVAC looks to absorb a quarter of total ARP spending. The data covered 5,004 districts, representing 74% of students and 70% of ESSER III funding allocated.
3. Install solar panels
Installing solar panels allows schools to tap into clean, renewable energy while locking in long-term savings. Photovoltaic systems offset daytime electricity usage, reducing utility bills. And with solar power purchase agreements (PPAs), districts can get solar with no upfront costs, paying only for the system’s actual production. Over 20 years, schools can accumulate hundreds of thousands in energy savings, with some seeing near zero net costs after incentives. Plus, generating on-site energy via solar panels slashes greenhouse gas emissions. Solar empowers schools to shrink their carbon footprint and frees up funds.
The California Elementary School District completed an 8.1 MW solar installation across 48 sites last year. The district is also finalizing a microgrid system to provide emergency backup power and shave peak demand charges. Overall, the projects are saving Chula Vista $70 million.
4. Electrify school buses
Replacing old diesel buses with electric models allows districts to clean up transportation while cutting long-term costs. E-buses have 30-40% lower fuel and maintenance expenses compared to diesel. Charging costs are minimal at around $0.12/mile. And grants often cover the higher upfront purchase price. In fact, research shows that districts can save $4,000 to $11,000 per bus per year compared with diesel. Scale that across an entire fleet, and savings add up. Plus, with zero tailpipe emissions, e-buses eliminate student exposure to diesel exhaust. Going electric provides cleaner, healthier transportation for less money.
The school avoided high upfront costs by using a full-service financing model––fixed annual fees over 10 years to cover the buses and comprehensive electrification services. Grants, a parent donation program, and a mill (property tax) levy will fund the fees. This innovative approach enabled Peak to Peak to electrify their fleet at a manageable price, providing clean transportation for students.
5. Reduce waste through composting
Composting food waste rather than sending it to landfills provides a triple win for schools–– reducing trash costs, earning rebates, and shrinking carbon footprints. Setting up cafeteria food scrap collection and partnering with haulers to compost offers an impactful sustainability strategy.
A student-led composting initiative at Melrose High School has blossomed into an ongoing program supported by the city. Sophomores at Melrose launched a food scrap collection in the cafeteria. The city then obtained a state grant to fund weekly hauling of the waste to commercial composting facilities. By diverting food from landfills, Melrose reduces waste fees and earns grant funding based on volumes composted. This program illustrates how schools and students can collaborate to drive sustainable change for an entire community.
6. Engage students in the effort!
Getting students directly involved in sustainability initiatives at school empowers youth change-makers while achieving real ecological and economic outcomes. Activities like waste audits, awareness campaigns, and more allow students to apply skills and lead projects that benefit their community.
The Green Team student group at Bragg Elementary in California tackled plastic pollution by discouraging single-use water bottles. After surveying and researching, they launched an education blitz that cut bottle usage in half, reducing waste by over 12,000 bottles annually. For this community impact, Bragg won a $500 sustainability grant. The project exemplifies how student-powered campaigns can drive measurable environmental results and empower youth leadership.
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