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No Greenwashing

California schools use formalized standards to prevent watered-down green technology programs.

by / November 12, 2007
Everybody wants to be green these days, but some businesses and governments try to cheat. They implement token measures for public relations reasons that don't significantly increase energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions or clean the environment. Many in the environmental community call it "greenwashing," said Kristin Heinen, assistant director of the Collaborative of High Performance Schools (CHPS).

The CHPS, joining public utilities, government agencies and other industries, sets the standard for green schools in California. The organization started as a project of the California Energy Commission, joining public utilities to promote greener, healthier schools in 1999. In 2001, the CHPS became a nonprofit organization.

The CHPS promotes "high-performance" standards aimed at making schools greener, healthier and more academically beneficial. To prevent greenwashing, the CHPS requires schools to clear two bars before classifying them as high-performance schools.

First, the school must meet 11 baseline standards. For example, energy efficiency must be at least 10 percent above the state's normal code requirement. After the school meets the 11 standards, it faces a point system in which it must earn 32 points to win the CHPS's endorsement. Schools earn these points for measures they take, in addition to the 11 baseline requirements in six categories. The first category is further energy efficiency. The second category is sustainable site selection, i.e., efforts to reduce hazards like erosion from water runoff. The third category is material efficiency, meaning avoiding natural resources for construction. The fourth is water usage efficiency, and the fifth is indoor environmental quality. The sixth category is policy and operation - the measures to operate and maintain the school's high-performance features.

A school could accrue all 32 points from just a few of those categories, or from all of them.

"It's really flexible for school districts," Heinen said. "Something that is really easy in Los Angeles could be really difficult for school districts in the central valley or the [San Francisco] Bay Area. It allows school districts to choose which points or features work best for their climate or local priorities. Obviously water is a bigger issue in Los Angeles than in the Bay Area. Los Angeles might want to choose more water efficiency credits."

More than 25 CHPS schools have finished construction so far, with another 100 under way. Several other states now pursue the CHPS's guidance on school construction. The organization will go national in 2008.  

What's Considered "High Performance"
In addition to green efforts, the CHPS requires measures to promote a healthy environment, like using paint, carpet and flooring with low emissions of harmful toxins.

"We have some pretty strict standards on ventilation in the classroom to make sure there is plenty of fresh air coming in," Heinen said. "If you're in a classroom with 30 kids, and one of them is sick, with poor ventilation, there is a higher chance all the other kids will get sick."

The CHPS argues that this health aspect directly leads to financial benefit for the schools because the less kids are sick, the more days they attend school, leading to more funding.

"The school gets more money, the children are healthier, and they're performing better, so everyone's happy," Heinen said.

Another aspect of CHPS high-performance standards is academic performance. For example, the organization mandates certain acoustical standards for schools sited near a highway or train track.

Schools can also get CHPS points for installing mechanisms designed to fill classrooms with natural light, rather than electric.

"Natural light is a lot easier on the eyes. It's a matter of orienting the building - putting it in a position where you can take advantage of sunlight during the daytime."

The buildings also use "light shelves" to bounce more light onto the ceilings, illuminating classrooms even more.

"They're like a shelf that hangs off the outside of the window," Heinen said. "Usually they look like they're decorative, but they actually perform a function."

CHPS schools also save money on maintenance costs because they involve many automated functions.

"A good example is waterless urinals. If you install waterless urinals, the way they're designed, water doesn't flush through them. The maintenance staff doesn't have to clean them every day," Heinen said. "We also require training of the maintenance operation staff so they know how to maintain and operate them."

Solar Schools
Heinen said CHPS schools typically saved from 30 percent to 40 percent on their energy bills, compared to schools of similar sizes and locations.

The New Haven Unified School District (NHUSD) in California built Conley-Caraballo High School, a CHPS school in 2005 in Hayward. Roughly 85 percent of the school's electricity comes from its solar power facility.

The system cost roughly $840,000 but the school district only paid $440,000. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the district's local utility, gave it a grant of $263,087, and state solar incentives covered the remainder.

The district estimates that the solar system will save roughly $40,000 per year, taking it roughly 10 to 12 years to recover its investment. The system's life expectancy is 20 to 30 years, meaning it will save the district roughly $1 million in the long run, according to estimates.

Enrique Palacios, executive director of operations for the NHUSD, plans to bring solar power to all schools in the district. Just as mass federal purchasing of recycled paper dropped the price of recycled paper in the market in general, during the 1970s and '80s, Palacios wants government to do the same with solar power.

"As we in the public sector get into buying more solar, then the cost of solar will drop and make it affordable for everybody," Palacios said, adding that he also embraces CHPS standards as a way to culturally influence kids to value green technology.

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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