Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Geothermal For New Wakefield On The Rocks?

Cost concerns have already killed two major sustainability features for Arlington's new Wakefield High School. Will the Arlington School Board now cut yet another one?

Arlington Public Schools staff, looking to balance cost and environmental impact, made a series of recommendations for the upcoming project:
Senior staff on Dec. 3 are expected to recommend to School Board members that the design for a new Wakefield include geothermal heating and cooling, solar hot water and photovoltaic generation of energy to meet about 2.5 percent of the building’s total energy needs.

But school officials rejected two other options, saying that a green roof and using photovoltaic generation to supply 7.5 percent of energy needs are not cost-effective in a tight budget environment.
You can watch the December 3rd discussion at the Arlington County School Board website. (A warning -- to watch it, you have to download the full 42-minute, 138MB video. Yes, really.)

School Board members focused in on the proposed geothermal heating & cooling system. While Sally Baird and Ed Fendley expressed strong support for all recommended environmental features, Abby Raphael and, to a lesser extent, Emma Violand-Sanchez, expressed concern about the cost. (Libby Garvey was absent from the meeting.)

"We have the potential here to make Wakefield High School the environmental learning center for this community, and I think for around the region, if we invest in these systems and take the opportunity to fully integrate them into the curriculum," said Fendley.

"To not do it now, we pass up the opportunity for 50 years," said Baird.

The geothermal system would cut the new Wakefield's carbon emissions by an estimated 100 tons a year. However, it requires an up-front investment that isn't projected to fully repay its cost. But as we've learned through recent spikes in gasoline & coal prices, projections can't tell you the whole story when you're dependent on fluctuating global energy markets.

Additionally, the projections don't take into account the likely effects of a new, national global warming policy on coal-dependent Virginia's electricity rates. And considering the devastation of mountaintop removal coal mining, along with coal-fired power's resulting air & water pollution, it's hard to put a simple dollar value on getting off the grid.

I asked several Arlington environmental leaders what they thought about the Wakefield debate. Arlington County Board Vice Chairman Jay Fisette told me:
Arlington needs to be smart about our energy future. The cost and availability of fossil fuels will become increasingly unpredictable. Accepting the Superintendent's recommendation for a sustainable geothermal system in the design for Wakefield High School would help the environment, provide great learning value to the students, and will remove the long-term cost risk for the schools.
While Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment has not taken a position on each of the individual proposed elements, ACE Executive Director Elenor Hodges said:
If we consider education of our children a long-term investment, we should also consider the construction of our buildings’ energy system a long-term investment. We should take a holistic approach where students are not only being taught about critical environmental issues and stewardship on paper, but they are learning in buildings that have incorporated best practices for stewardship of our resources.
Beyond energy & environmental concerns, it seems odd that board members would make decisions based on FY2010's economic conditions on spending that won't kick in until somewhere around FY2014. If our economy (and with it, tax revenue) hasn't long since come roaring back four years from now ... well, we're screwed in a lot more ways than this one.

The School Board will vote on the environmental options tomorrow (Thursday 12/17) at 7:30pm. If you can spare the time, please sign up to speak at the meeting (Education Center, 1426 North Quincy Street) in favor of the geothermal system. If you can't attend in person, please email the Arlington County School Board to tell them you're willing to put your money where your mouth is by investing our tax dollars in a sustainable future for our children.

UPDATE 12/17: ACE has endorsed the geothermal plan, along with solar hot water & solar power.

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