San Diego Unified’s classroom air conditioning plan has potential

Sustainability Matters has initiated discussions with the San Diego Unified School District to offer cost-effective, sustainable and environmentally-friendly solutions to improve the district’s plan to spend $204 million to install air conditioning in every classroom.

“San Diego Unified has a wonderful opportunity to lead by example on sustainability. Simply installing air conditioning by itself is an expensive, energy-intensive approach,” said Kristen Victor, CEO of Sustainability Matters, a building design consulting firm based in San Diego. “As our climate changes, and government policies start to reflect those changes, it is important to consider more efficient, affordable approaches to managing our energy needs while maintaining safe and comfortable classroom environments.”

After record-breaking heat waves pushed classroom temperatures above 90 degrees on multiple days in September and October, some students and parents demanded the district do something about the hundreds of classrooms without air conditioning. The district’s board voted Nov. 10 to install air conditioning in every classroom — even in coastal classrooms that may only use the systems a few weeks a year.

In order to run and maintain the new units, the district has said it will have to budget roughly $2.8 million a year for electricity, and $1.4 million a year for maintenance and repairs. Sustainability Matters is able to develop solutions to help the district reduce those costs and reduce its carbon footprint. The district has expressed interest in a holistic strategy that includes passive cooling techniques.

Passive cooling, by nature, does not require electricity so it is more sustainable and more affordable. New forms of thermal insulation have recently become available that can greatly reduce the need for air conditioning or shift the energy load to off-peak hours. These specially engineered materials naturally absorb and store excess heat during the day and release it at night.

Sustainability Matters has demonstrated the effectiveness of passive energy strategies in several projects in the San Diego region, including Casa Aguila, the county’s first passive house near Ramona; and The Patio on Goldfinch in Mission Hills. Sustainability Matters also is consulting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on an energy retrofit project at the Army’s Fort Irwin National Training Center in the High Desert, which quickly experienced significant energy savings.

At each of these locations, passive cooling strategies that do not use electricity are lowering energy costs, protecting the environment and effectively maintaining comfortable indoor temperatures with little to no assistance from air conditioning units and other mechanical devices.

The need for solutions in San Diego classrooms is clear. Data gathered through a project organized by Sustainability Matters and the Pacific Beach Elementary Parent Teacher Organization in September and October found that indoor temperatures in two classrooms hovered in the high 80s and low 90s for nearly a week while class was in session.

Heather Worms, president of the Pacific Beach Elementary Parent Teacher Organization, said the conditions led to multiple students and teachers being treated for heat exhaustion. A number of parents kept their children home from school on the hottest days.

“Teachers shouldn’t be teaching in that,” Worms said. “Students can’t learn in that. It’s just such a waste. Teachers are turning off the lights and putting on a movie because there’s nothing else they can do.”

The district can leverage its resources and influence to help foster a culture of innovation and conservation in San Diego, Victor said.

In addition to energy solutions, the district can capitalize on water conservation opportunities. As local water districts raise rates to pay for new infrastructure, the district should continue to investigate the potential for graywater and rainwater harvesting, Victor said. Sustainability Matters, the Pacific Beach EcoDistrict, and Pacific Beach Elementary School, for example, are collaborating on a project to demonstrate the effectiveness of rain barrel systems at the school. Similar projects could be replicated at schools throughout the district.

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