LETTER: Fossil Fuels Rule at Greenwich Public Schools

Submitted by Julie DesChamps and Myra Klockenbrink

The time has come to break with fossil fuels and embrace renewable energy sources for better, more resilient school buildings and dramatically lower operating costs.

Leadership in Greenwich is committing our community to polluting technologies that are expensive, jeopardize public health, increase our carbon footprint and leave the Town vulnerable to future commodity price spikes. They are failing to meet the Board of Selectmen’s energy reduction goal of 20% by next year and 40% by 2029. There is no plan to course correct.

When building new or renovating, schools are faced with a decision regarding heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). As outlined by Undaunted K12, they can choose outdated, inefficient legacy systems, like boilers, that burn fossil fuels including gas, oil or propane to run their heating systems. Burning fossil fuels on site generates pollutants and emits greenhouse gases, negatively affecting air quality and contributing to health problems like asthma, the leading cause of student absenteeism.

In contrast, school districts can select modern, clean HVAC systems, like heat pumps, that move heat in the air or ground to provide both heating and cooling. These are not powered by on-site combustion and accommodate high performance ventilation and filtration, which improve air quality. Modern HVAC systems, like geothermal, are simple, stable and easy to maintain with proper staff training, according to experts.

Greenwich Public Schools (GPS) and the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) double downed on polluting technologies by rejecting a plan to correct and optimize the geothermal system at Hamilton Avenue School, the option recommended by the experts hired by GPS. Instead, the BET unanimously endorsed $3.2 M for a gas-fired HVAC system. The decision continues a pattern of spending approved by the BET for replacing equipment across the district with systems run by fossil fuels.

Nothing moves the needle for cutting operating costs and reducing energy consumption at the public schools like geothermal. Energy is the second largest expense for GPS behind salaries.

HVAC systems are responsible for 56% of energy use in schools, of which 61% is tied to fuel combustion on site, according to a recent report. This translates into big bucks for Greenwich taxpayers, as GPS accounts for over half of the town’s energy consumption. Over the last two years, gas prices for the municipality have increased by 57%. With geothermal, GPS would be shielded from volatile price increases, as this modern technology does not depend on fossil fuels. The money saved can be invested instead in classrooms and other municipal needs.

A case study at Prince George’s County Public Schools demonstrates how our district can save money and reduce energy consumption with modern HVAC. Charles Herbert Flowers High School was built in 2000 with a legacy fossil fuel system, while Dr. Henry Wise Jr. High School, which accommodates 400 more students, was constructed five years later with geothermal.

Although they have equivalent architectural footprints, in 2022, the gas bill at Flowers was $72,000, as opposed to $6,000 at Wise, as related by former superintendent Dr. Monica Goldson.

There is time to reverse course and adopt clean, renewable HVAC technology to meet the town’s goals. The greatest opportunity is at the new Central Middle School, and the Building Committee has wisely reopened discussions about geothermal. An ever-growing number of schools are taking advantage of the cost savings and energy efficiencies delivered by geothermal, as the economics now favor all-electric, high performance HVAC options. Powerful federal incentives now pay schools to install these efficient systems, making the transition to clean energy affordable.

Our community needs leadership on this issue to ensure the health and safety of this generation and beyond. Elected officials are throwing money away on legacy fossil fuel systems that are exposing taxpayers to escalating and volatile cost increases. Residents care about the future health of our children, resiliency of our town and the fiscal stability of this community.

Please sign this petition to make your voices heard and let your leadership know what counts for our students now and into the future.