Is the Future of S.C. Schools in Kentucky?
BY BILL DAVIS
After traveling to see a Kentucky elementary school that spends nothing on electricity, Democratic state Sen. Phil Leventis of Sumter now envisions schools of green for future generations.
Leventis and state Rep. Doug Brannon (R-Landrum) took part recently in a program that sent legislators to a small country school building near Bowling Green, Ky., that seems to have done the impossible. Richardsville Elementary in Warren County has become the nation’s first net-zero energy cost school in the nation. Employing a series of architectural and engineering moves — like building much of the school around the gym to insulate what is usually the most expensive area to heat and cool — the school’s power demand was cut by roughly four-fifths.
The final fifth was taken care of by the use of an array of solar panels that generate power to be sold back to the utilities.
The rub with green buildings has long been the misperception that they are too expensive to design and construct — that their exotic materials and shapes are too costly to maintain.
According to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, the average cost of building a primary school in the United States in 2011 is $200 per square foot.
Richardsville Elementary’s per-square-foot cost was $182, Leventis was told, thanks in part to a federal grant that covered a big chunk of the solar array. Without the grant, Leventis said it was only $208 per square foot.
By his own admission, Brannon is “no tree hugger.” But he was just as impressed as Leventis by what he saw. For every million dollars in energy savings each year a county enjoys — and schools are big power eaters — Brannon said as many as 20
teachers could be employed.
Also, by not aligning the school with the road in front of it, but the sun’s path, Brannon said the school was able to capture more solar energy.
“If they do that in Kentucky … we can do it in South Carolina,” Brannon said.
Brannon, who serves on the House Education and Public Works Committee, said it would be tough passing a bill in Columbia instructing districts in South Carolina to follow suit.
“I could see the ‘home-rule’ people screaming,” Brannon said.
Ed Falco, who used to work on energy-saving projects within the S.C. Department of Education, is still trying to educate the Palmetto State on how to be green like the Bluegrass State.
As project manager of the Palmetto Green Schools Network by the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, Falco wants to build a green “grassroots to grass-tops” movement, where students behaviors and building policy becomes as verdant and lush as the countryside. The network launched a website, palmettogreenschools.com, last week.
Big school districts, like Greenville County, the largest one in the state, spend between $17 million to $18 million a year on energy alone, Falco said.
Falco said minimal upfront investment in design and materials, even in retrofits of existing schools, could result in major cost savings to schools. Too many times, Falco has seen cash-strapped school systems start out with green intentions, but prevailing politics and economic realities weigh down projects, and the greener/leaner elements get “value-engineered” out.
Even with the energy cost savings, green buildings might still be a hard sell in poorer districts that don’t have the tax base to construct anything above the bare minimum, according to South Carolina School Boards Association spokesman Debbie Elmore.
Elmore said this is a touchy subject, as the amount the state puts forward for construction is “minuscule” and shrinking, with most, if not all, money for new schools and retrofits coming from local tax coffers.
Elmore called for legislators like Leventis and Brannon to put forward bills offering incentives to help school districts go green and to create an additional infrastructure bank for smaller districts to dip into for these kind of projects.
Crystal ball: As the state’s economy continues to recover, there will be more money, and potentially legislative support, for greener schools. But education will have to come first, and people will have to get over uninformed sticker-shock fears before communities can reap the benefits of big-time energy savings.