School & District Management

Most Schools Burn Fossil Fuels for Heat. Here’s Why That’s a Problem

By Mark Lieberman — January 12, 2023 4 min read
Photo of old HVAC system.
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More than half the energy used in K-12 schools goes toward heating and cooling buildings. And more than 60 percent of school HVAC systems’ energy use is tied to on-site burning fossil fuels, the primary driver of climate change.

All told, emissions from HVAC systems in schools each year roughly equal that of 5 million gas-powered cars, and imposes on society at least $2 billion in costs.

These are among the takeaways from a new report published Thursday by sustainability nonprofits RMI (Rocky Mountain Institute) and UndauntedK12. The report synthesizes federal data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and other sources to highlight K-12 schools’ substantial carbon footprint, and outlines how schools can reduce that impact by prioritizing energy efficiency.

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Newly installed solar panels stretch out along the north side of Madison-Grant High School near Fairmount, Ind., on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.
Newly installed solar panels stretch out along the north side of Madison-Grant High School near Fairmount, Ind., on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.
Jeff Morehead/The Chronicle-Tribune via AP

And one way to do that, the report argues, may be to take advantage of funding opportunities available now to install HVAC systems powered by electric heat pumps.

Schools’ contributions to climate change are drawing greater scrutiny as the planet continues to heat up and governments around the world are slowly grinding into action to reverse its most devastating effects. HVAC systems have also entered the spotlight during the pandemic because of their role in preventing the spread of infectious disease.

Heating and cooling are among the biggest drivers of schools’ energy output, according to the report. Outdoor temperatures are becoming more extreme in both directions, which will only increase the pressure on schools’ HVAC systems—and hamper students’ learning experiences—in the coming years.

Right now, only roughly a quarter of schools use electricity for heating, and roughly one in 10 schools currently use heat pumps for heating and cooling, according to the report’s analysis of federal survey data.

By contrast, nearly two-thirds of schools use gas for heat, and 6 percent use fuel oil for heat.

Many schools already aren’t exactly thrilled with the legacy HVAC systems they have. Schools in Guilford County, N.C. and Springdale, Ark., for instance, have had frigid classrooms after heating systems broke in recent weeks. And hundreds of school buildings across the country lack any air conditioning at all.

Paying the price for sticking with outdated systems

The Biden administration declared last year that by 2050, the nation will spend $85 per metric ton of emitted carbonon mitigation efforts—fighting wildfires, for example, or managing floods, and raising insurance costs—to counter the negative impact on the climate.

To calculate the social costs of schools’ energy systems’ emissions, RMI and UndauntedK12 multiplied the $85 federal standard by schools’ energy output, arriving at an annual sum of $2 billion.

In fact, the number may be even higher. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed last November to refine its approach to determining the social cost, and raising the negative impact estimate to $190 per metric ton. Applying that standard to schools, the social cost of K-12 HVAC emissions would exceed $4 billion a year.

A disproportionate share of fossil fuel burning takes place at schools with colder climates. More than 90 percent of schools in New England and the mid-Atlantic burn fossil fuels for HVAC systems, the report says.

What schools can do if they want to make change

Many districts are using federal COVID-relief dollars to make facilities upgrades, but those dollars only go so far, and they expire in a year and a half. New federal grant and tax credit programs established through last year’s landmark climate change spending package could pave the way for more widespread upgrades in years to come—if districts can navigate tricky requirements and braid together multiple state and federal funding sources.

Why might districts want to consider electrifying their HVAC systems? Heat pumps ensure cleaner air than gas-powered systems by moving heat from one place to another instead of generating heat or cooling from a dirty source. They’re also quieter and more cost-effective in the long term, because they require less energy to work effectively, and because electricity costs have been more stable in recent decades than gas, the report says.

Schools in St. Paul, Minn., Montezuma, Colo., and Arlington, Va., are among those that have installed heat pumps in recent years. The state of Maine last year invested $8 million to help schools switch to heat pumps. Washington state last spring became the first state to require newly constructed residential and commercial buildings more than four stories tall to have heat pumps.

They’re hardly newfangled technology, either. A 2000 study of heat pumps installed in four identical elementary schools in Lincoln, Neb., found that energy consumption in those schools was lower than anywhere else in the district, and that the cost of those systems over their full cycle saved the district 13 percent, compared with traditional HVAC costs.

Electrifying school campuses can also be a potent teaching tool, said Alex Buchanan, technical lead for the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, a nonprofit that helps schools with environmentally friendly building design. With curricula centered around climate change hard to find in most U.S. schools, districts’ efforts to manage their own emissions might help fill the gap.

“Understanding how their classroom’s economizer works might encourage a student to open a window at home when conditions allow rather than turning on the air conditioner,” Buchanan said.

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