Some lawmakers are confronting the climate crisis by targeting school buildings, one of the largest energy consumers in local jurisdictions.
There are already three net-zero school buildings in Maryland: Wild Lake Middle School in Howard County, which was completed in 2017, and Graceland Park/O’Donnell Heights Middle School and Holabird Academy in Baltimore City, which opened this school year.
House Bill 630, introduced by Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery), would require local school systems to update their energy policies and encourage, rather than mandate, them to use more renewable energy in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Our school systems tend to be really the largest users of energy in any county government or any public facility within our state,” Solomon told the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.
An iteration of this legislation was introduced last year but ran out of time due to the abbreviated 2020 session.
The intent of the bill is to increase transparency around schools’ energy policies and to prompt schools to start proactively thinking about ways they can incorporate cleaner energy into their buildings, Solomon said.
This bill comes after advocates struggled to find out how school districts used energy and realized that some schools hadn’t updated their energy policies in decades.
“What does not get measured does not get managed,” Joseph Jakuta of the group Climate Parents Prince George’s told committee members.
Concerned about climate change, Elizabeth Feldman said that she and others began a statewide inventory of school district energy policies across the state and found that while most school districts have energy policies, they were often outdated.
Under Solomon’s measure, school districts must have comprehensive energy policies that address how efficient their energy is, include the percentage of their electricity that comes from renewable sources and provide the current and historical data of their energy use. Energy policies must be posted on school districts’ websites and updated every two years.
“Tracking energy use helps districts to identify inefficient buildings and then reduce waste by changing behaviors and/or directing retrofits to the buildings that most need them,” said Joanna Pi-Sunyer, representing Baltimore City Public Schools. “Energy policy also gives districts the opportunity to educate students and staff…about renewable energy.”
Setting targets to increase renewable energy would be encouraged, but not required, under Solomon’s bill.
“We were not trying to impose tremendous new burdens or incredible new costs on school systems,” particularly during this year, Solomon said. “We really wanted this to be about transparency and data and to start the conversation with local advocates, with boards of education.”
The Interagency Commission on School Construction, Maryland Energy Administration and the Maryland Clean Energy Center would have to make recommendations to the governor and General Assembly on how to expand the state’s net zero energy school initiative grant program.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s)’s sweeping Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021 also targets school buildings. It calls for at least one of the next five schools built in each jurisdiction to meet net-zero energy requirements, through energy efficiency measures, solar panels or geothermal energy, and will be funded by a no-interest loan from the state to make up for additional costs. However, new school buildings that are not immediately net zero energy must be ready to add solar panels at a later date.
The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee is still working through discussions and amendments on Pinsky’s bill. Sen. Jason Gallion (R-Harford) proposed amendments on Wednesday that would reduce greenhouse gas emission goals to 50%, instead of 60%, by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050, rather than 2045.
He pointed to a recent natural gas facility, Wildcat Point Generation Facility in Cecil County, that made a billion dollar investment and already has a goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, Gallion said. His numbers represent a more realistic goal that newer companies can live with, he said.
Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore) also pointed to blackouts in California and Texas and referenced an article that suggested there was a danger in transitioning to clean energy too fast. “Not putting all of our eggs in one basket and to have a balanced approach” is the right move, she said.
Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) pushed back and said those two states are barely surviving the impact of climate change. “I don’t know what the right answer is…but unless we push, we’re not going to get anywhere and Maryland is going to be the next in line,” she said.
Gallion’s amendment was voted down.
The bill does include a sunset provision in 2025, which means lawmakers can in four years assess whether the reduction targets are too fast or too slow, Pinsky said. In other words, there will be a chance to alter reduction goals depending on what happens in the next few years.
The Senate committee will continue discussing amendments on Friday.