Palo Alto’s push to green schools bears fruit

By Benjamin Custer
Peninsula Press (Published February 2014)

Palo Alto Unified School District is reducing its carbon footprint and beginning to save money a few years into its most ambitious effort to operate its campuses in a more sustainable manner.

Palo Alto’s schools are trading in sprinkler-reliant lawns for native plants accustomed to natural cycles of rainfall. Students and staff are adopting more energy-conscious practices. Composting and recycling are standard across school sites. And the district is exploring the possibility of powering newly constructed buildings with solar energy.

“The district has been a leader in its efforts to create a more healthy and sustainable community,” said Alex Von Feldt, program director at Acterra, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit dedicated to greening institutions throughout Silicon Valley.

Since the 1990s, members of the district’s Sustainable Schools Committee have committed themselves to making Palo Alto’s campuses more energy efficient. But the district implemented its green efforts on a much larger scale in 2011 when it forged partnerships with Acterra and energy conservation company Cenergistic.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency recognized the district as an ENERGY STAR, Top Performer.

“I actually believe that climate change is a terrible threat to civilization, and so it is important to go as far as we can in reducing energy,” said Walt Hays, chair of the district’s Sustainable Schools Committee. “It’s been really encouraging to me to see how the district has become more positive as time has gone on in their response.”

Acterra has helped the district remove 5,500 square feet of grass and install 6,500 plants indigenous to the Bay Area. The plants, which stem from Acterra’s nursery, demand much less water; don’t require fertilizer and herbicides; and don’t involve gas-powered maintenance, such as mowing, blowing and hedging.

Acterra enlisted the help of hundreds of Palo Alto’s elementary school students to help with garden installations.

“There are many areas where lawns are installed but are not used by children,” Von Feldt said. “It is these areas that we would like to target more to reduce water use … and provide a healthy urban ecology for all our wildlife.’’

Since entering a four-year program with Cenergistic, the district has seen a drastic reduction in energy consumption and expenses.

“We tried to do it on our own as many districts do, but the wealth of experience and expert resources Cenergistic brings to the partnership are undeniably advantageous,” said Rebecca Navarro, the district’s energy specialist.

Between October 2011 and September 2013, the district saw a 10-percent reduction in electricity use, a 23-percent reduction in natural gas use and a six-percent reduction in water use — a total of $686,000 in savings. Cenergistic estimated the district avoided about 1,900 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is equivalent to removing 339 cars from the road for a year.

The partnership is behavior-based, which means schools around the district have had to adjust personal practices. Those changes include switching off lights in unoccupied areas; turning off all computers and other office equipment nightly; responding promptly to water leaks; and maintaining moderate thermostat set points.

Most of the initial financial savings have gone to pay Cenergistic. The district agreed to pay the company $300,000 per year for four years. But starting in 2015, Cenergistic will offer continued support at no charge as long as the district adheres to the program guidelines.

“If we spend less money for utilities, that means that money can be used elsewhere,” said Cathy Mak, the district’s chief business official. “So I would say the majority of the savings are going back to classrooms.”

Waste reduction also figures prominently in the district’s savings.

In 2010, the district instituted composting across school sites and maximized accessibility by clustering compost bins with waste and recycling bins. Last year, the Sustainable Schools Committee worked with the Student Nutrition Services Department to switch all plastic containers to compostable containers.

By integrating composting — which costs 10 percent less than garbage service — and limiting costly garbage pickups by diverting more paper and plastics to recycling bins, the district has saved about $20,000 a month, according to data from GreenWaste of Palo Alto, the city’s waste collection company.