Energy Initiatives | Feature

The Big Green

Chicago Public Schools has developed and begun implementing a comprehensive strategy for going green, one that encompasses information technology, facilities, and education to reduce the district's environmental impact, cut operating costs, and help build students' awareness of the environment.

Implementing environmentally friendly initiatives across more than 600 schools is no easy task, but that's exactly what Suzanne Carlson had in mind when she came on board as Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) director of environmental affairs in 2007. At the time, the city's mayor Richard M. Daley was talking a lot about his vision for making Chicago "the greenest city in the country." As part of that plan, the mayor was installing environmental advocates within every city department and agency.

"Under that directive, I joined CPS," recalled Carlson, who had her work cut out for her when it came to spearheading district-wide environmental initiatives. Individual schools and departments within the district had instituted their own energy conservation and recycling plans, she said, but the district lacked a comprehensive strategy for going green.

"When I came here, I introduced an environmental action plan that addressed our top priorities, and a way to [achieve] them," Carlson said. The proposal revolved around reducing the district's environmental impact while teaching students to be environmental stewards. It laid out 11 goals and 26 strategies to engage the entire district in environmental stewardship, from energy conservation to school gardening.

Carlson said the plan put particular emphasis on the use of alternative energy, which it has been buying since 2007. In 2010, the district upped its green power use and found itself at the top of the Environmental Protection Agency's current Top 20 K-12 Schools List as a result of that effort.

The district currently buys more than 107 million kilowatt-hours of green power annually, representing 20 percent of its total electricity use (According to the EPA, this equates to the removal of 20,000 passenger cars from the nation's roads.) The district also produces solar power on-site at 16 schools, where solar power usage totals more than 165,000 kWh annually.

Last year CPS also earned the Green-e Energy Program certification from the Center for Resource Solutions, which runs an independent certification and verification program for renewable energy and greenhouse gas emission reductions in the retail market. "Our certification went into effect in July, when we signed our new renewable energy contract," said Carlson. "With those [elements] in place, we were immediately identified as number one for the EPA's environmental leadership program."

Of course, becoming a "green" powerhouse in the K-12 sector requires more than just a purchase order for alternative energy. Carlson said the district takes a comprehensive approach to "minimizing impact on the environment and teaching students to be environmental stewards." All schools recycle paper, cardboard, newspaper, steel cans, plastic bottles and aluminum cans, for example, with top recyclers earning rewards every semester.

Carlson said some schools also compost food waste--outdoors or in worm bins--to reduce waste and teach students about decomposition, and that all schools participate in energy-saving competitions that are tracked through an online energy monitoring system. A new pilot program for 2011 will find individual schools receiving monetary rewards for reducing their energy use.

Such incentives go a long way in getting individual principals on board with CPS' overall "green" vision. "Principals always like to see resources coming back to their local schools," Carlson said. "Through this program, we're telling them that if they have a 5 percent reduction in energy use, compared to the prior three years, then they'll receive money back for their schools."

Carlson said getting all 600 schools and their administrators, teachers, and students to accept and implement the plan has been her department's biggest challenge. "It's hard to get them to make it a priority, and to keep them engaged," said Carlson, who is sometimes left out of the loop on school-specific initiatives. A more centralized approach, she added, could benefit the entire district. "We can have a much bigger impact if we go out for bid as a district (for a recycling program, for example)," she said, "rather than just having a few individual schools involved."

To help spread the word across the district and to the community about its green efforts, CPS has created a Web site dedicated to the cause. It includes information about environmental action plans and primary initiatives within transportation, energy, waste, water, and usage. The site highlights green initiatives that range from simple moves like ensuring that all of the district's 120,000 computers are shut down at night, to more complex measures such as constructing LEED-certified school buildings.

Carlson said she hopes these and other efforts will positively impact the district's 400,000-plus students, and help them become environmentally conscious citizens. As part of that charge, CPS is rolling out age-appropriate science curricula and lesson extensions that will teach students about green power, carbon management and energy efficiency.

"At the end of the day, this is all about educating the next generation," said Carlson. "If we can convince our students to be part of these programs, and to get involved, engaged and committed over the long haul, then everyone benefits."

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