Press Release

Green school buildings fail to deliver on promises

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Click here to listen to Todd Myers discussing this report.

RALEIGH — “Green” school buildings in North Carolina fall far short of their promises to protect the environment through lower energy costs and increased efficiency. That’s the conclusion of a new report prepared for the John Locke Foundation.

Most green schools examined in the report proved less energy-efficient than traditional schools in the same districts. None of the green schools would come close to reaching energy savings that would recover their higher initial construction costs.

“At a time when resources for education and for protecting the environment are scarce, state legislators and policymakers should look closely at green schools and question whether policies that promote those costly standards actually yield the promised benefits,” said report author Todd Myers, environmental director at Washington Policy Center in Seattle.

The report examines green school buildings in four N.C. school districts: Wake, Durham, and Buncombe counties, along with the Iredell-Statesville public schools. Research focused on schools receiving certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environment Design, or LEED, system.

“None of the green schools are best-performing in energy use, and in every school district at least one of the green schools performs below average, compared to similar schools in the same district,” Myers said.

North Carolina’s results proved comparable to those found in reviews of green schools in other states, according to the report. Examples cited include schools in Houston, Texas; Santa Fe, N.M.; and Spokane, Wash. “Across North Carolina and the United States, so-called ‘green’ buildings often use more energy than their nongreen counterparts in the same school districts.”

LEED certification requirements can prove counterproductive. “In many cases green schools require changes that end up increasing cost and reducing energy efficiency,” according to the report. LEED standards for one school cited in the report would have led school officials to include a larger air-conditioning unit to increase air circulation. “That larger unit would not only have cost more; it would have used more energy.”

The report focuses on two Buncombe County intermediate schools serving fifth- and sixth-graders. Built in 2011 and 2012, both were designed to use “30-35 percent less energy than a typical school,” according to the report.

Compared to other intermediate and middle schools in the same district, “the two schools rank below average for energy efficiency, using more energy per square foot than most of the other schools,” according to the report. “Instead of using 30 percent less energy, these green schools used 7 percent more energy than nongreen schools.”

Iredell-Statesville’s one green elementary school is billed as the first LEED “Gold”-certified school building in the nation. Built in 2002, Third Creek Elementary spends about $7,775 more per year on energy than it would if it were as efficient as the average elementary school in the district. “If the school saved energy early in its life, it certainly is not doing so now, meaning the district probably did not recover the additional cost to meet the LEED Gold standard.”

The report focuses on two LEED-certified elementary schools in Durham County. Among 28 comparable schools, the green schools rank No. 10 and No. 15 in energy efficiency. “Both schools perform significantly worse than Holt Elementary, which was last remodeled in 1992 and spends about 34 percent to 37 percent less on energy,” Myers said.

Inconsistent data hurt efforts to study energy efficiency in Wake County’s one certified green elementary school. Researchers focused on natural gas usage when comparing green-certified Alston Ridge to nearly 100 other Wake elementaries. “The school is using more natural gas per square foot than comparable elementary schools in the district.”

Researchers compiled results across the four school districts despite some official resistance. “We have examined energy efficiency for schools in several states, and we have never had as much difficulty receiving public data as we did in North Carolina,” Myers said. While Buncombe County school officials responded promptly, Wake County’s public schools offered an incomplete response three months after the initial request.

“The wide gap in response time between districts within the state indicates the problem with compliance had less to do with staffing or time than with the simple failure of school officials to prioritize transparency,” Myers said.

The consistent failure of green buildings to produce promised energy savings is not unusual, Myers said. “The performance of North Carolina’s green schools, however, is a further indication that legislators and school officials should think twice before requiring schools to spend additional taxpayer and school dollars to earn LEED certification,” he said. “Requiring school district facilities directors to meet a formulaic, one-size-fits-all approach often leads them in the wrong direction, increasing costs without returning savings.”

The report also labels green school buildings’ record as “an environmental failure.” “The failure to save energy, or even slow the increase in energy use, wastes resources on efforts that do nothing for climate change or the environment,” Myers said. “Instead misguided green building rules divert scarce funding from efforts that could have a positive environmental impact, or which could be used to fulfill other public needs.”

“Ultimately — for taxpayers, students, and the environment — the real-world data show that North Carolina’s green schools fall well short of their energy-saving promises.”

The report “Certified ‘Green’ Schools: Savings and Benefits Fail to Materialize in North Carolina” is available at the JLF website. For more information, please contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].

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About John Locke Foundation

We are North Carolina’s Most Trusted and Influential Source of Common Sense. The John Locke Foundation was created in 1990 as an independent, nonprofit think tank that would work “for truth, for freedom, and for the future of North Carolina.” The Foundation is named for John Locke (1632-1704), an English philosopher whose writings inspired Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders.

The John Locke Foundation is a 501(c)(3) research institute and is funded solely from voluntary contributions from individuals, corporations, and charitable foundations.