At Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, students can check out a digital energy dashboard to track in real time how much power the school is producing with the help of more than 1,700 rooftop solar panels. Essentially, the amount generated is equal to the annual energy use of the building, making it one of the largest net-zero energy schools in the United States.
Building on the success of Discovery, which debuted in 2015, the Arlington School District opened a second net-zero elementary school, Alice West Fleet, four years later. This school year saw the addition of Cardinal Elementary School, which is poised to be the district’s third net-zero energy school, once the building is officially verified, Cathy Lin, director of facilities for the school district, told ABC News.
“Always the intent is to build a sustainable school,” she said.
The exterior of Discovery Elementary School is pictured on Sept. 3, 2015 in Arlington, Va. The energy efficient school teaches students in the Eco Action Club about renewable energy, waste recycling and other responsible environmental approaches.
Schools with solar power are on the rise in the U.S. — growing 81% from 2014 to 2019. Still, the number is relatively small — just 5.5% of K-12 public schools currently use solar energy, according to a 2020 report from Generation180, a nonprofit that advocates for the transition to clean energy.
The country’s K-12 public schools are also “major energy consumers,” consuming about 8% of all the energy used in commercial buildings, according to the Sierra Club.
Overall, the education sector has an untapped opportunity to help mitigate climate change, from renewable energy practices to teachings, according to the Aspen Institute’s K12 Climate Action initiative, which points to school districts like Arlington’s as a success story in demonstrating climate solutions.
“We envision a future where America’s over 100,000 schools are models for climate action, climate solutions, and sustainability, and the 50 million children and youth in these schools are prepared to succeed in the clean economy and lead a more sustainable, resilient, and equitable society,” the organization wrote in a recent policy report.
There are challenges to these efforts, including funding, though since schools often serve as shelters during disasters, climate action needs to be supported at local, state and federal levels, the report noted. With communities of color and low-income neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by climate change, advancing equity also needs to be a priority of educators, it said.
Sense of urgency
For current students, there is a “special and important sense of urgency” to address climate change, Vic Barrett, a K12 Climate Action youth commissioner and network organizer for the climate justice-focused Power Shift Network, told ABC News.
“Young people have a really unique perspective on this issue, a lot of us being born into a world that was already past what scientists agree …….