Greening local public schools

Across Buncombe County, schools are installing solar panels, building sustainable playgrounds and upgrading bathrooms. Here’s a rundown of current projects to conserve energy and reduce costs.

Grants from Progress Energy and the State Energy Office enabled the Asheville City Schools to commission an energy audit. The study was completed a year ago, and the schools are now implementing some of its suggestions.

At present utility rates, such low- or no-cost measures as removing lights from vending machines and turning off unused appliances in summer could save the system up to $259,000 annually, the audit notes. Undertaking all the recommended projects would cut greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 3.2 million pounds per year.

Another State Energy Office grant for $200,000 (matched by $160,000 from Progress Energy) enabled the schools to install more efficient lighting systemwide. This project, including sensors that turn lights on and off when people enter and leave rooms, will be completed this month.

Asheville High also boasts a new heating-and-cooling system, new ceilings and about 300 new thermal-paned, low-E windows.

Other improvements will enable all the system’s computers and telephones to “sleep” at night and on weekends while still sending out necessary notifications and updates.

In addition, each school now has a Green Team made up of teachers, administrators, parents and students who help develop and carry out specific projects.

Isaac Dickson Elementary, for example, wants to hire a dishwasher for the cafeteria, calculating that the cost of buying and disposing of plastic foam trays roughly equals a dishwasher’s salary. The plan will also sharply reduce the waste stream.

Students on the Green Teams are also helping write enviro-blurbs for use in school newsletters, websites and weekly TGIF (“Think Green, It's Friday”) announcements.

Each principal will soon begin receiving monthly reports on their school’s energy usage to share with their Green Team. Schools coming up with additional ways to cut energy costs may be reimbursed to help them fund still more green projects, Assistant Superintendent Bob McGrattan notes.

Buncombe County, too, is making major strides. The Joe P. Eblen and Charles T. Koontz intermediate schools, now under construction, will be LEED-certified upon completion next year.

And Owen Middle School in Swannanoa was one of five schools across the Carolinas to win photovoltaic installations through Progress Energy's SunSense Schools program. The utility partnered with the Carolina Hurricanes’ Kids ’N Community Foundation to provide the 2-kilowatt demonstration system, valued at more than $20,000. Students can monitor the solar panels' real time electricity production online.

The county system is also developing a “Green Schools” website that will offer helpful ideas and tips.

Individual students, too, are getting in on the action. Enka High senior Ethan Rice is writing a children’s book about recycling; as part of his research, he’s visited local waste and recycling centers. And Danny Magley created a peace garden at North Buncombe Middle School last year as part of his Eagle Scout credentials.

Meanwhile, the Reading, Riding, and Retrofit program has the ambitious goal of comprehensively greening 54 public-school campuses countywide. This is projected to reduce energy use by 40 percent, project coordinator (and former Asheville City Council member) Robin Cape reports.

In partnership with the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, the program has been awarded a $495,000 federal Climate Showcase Communities grant to begin implementing these projects.

— Asheville-based freelance writer Anne Fitten Glenn can be reached at afjones@bellsouth.net.

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