Building committee has wrongly nixed a net-zero emissions high school

We Must Act Locally on Climate

Building committee has wrongly nixed a net-zero emissions high school

Climate change is a clear and present danger to our community and to humanity as a whole. We are digging a hole for ourselves by continuing to produce greenhouse gas emissions. The first law of holes is: “When you’re in one, stop digging.”

We must continue to act as individuals and a community to reduce emissions. The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008 mandated reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Massachusetts is expected to meet the 2020 goal through energy conservation, increased use of renewable energy, and increased automobile fuel efficiency.

The battle continues. Intermediate goals of reducing emissions to 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, 75 percent by 2040, and 100 percent by 2050 have passed both the Mass. Senate and House of Representatives. Gov. Charlie Baker announced state goals of net-zero emissions by 2050. We are now planning buildings that will be operating in 2050 and beyond.

We should acknowledge these goals and commit to implementing them in our current new building plans. Any new construction, especially of a building that will last to 2050 and beyond, should produce no greenhouse gases. If we do not plan to build a net-zero emissions Nauset Regional High School now, we may anticipate an expensive retrofit within 10 or 15 years. A retrofit would be significantly more costly than doing it right the first time.

Let us not confuse net-zero emissions with net-zero energy usage. To reduce energy usage to zero requires aggressive insulation and has diminishing returns. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero means exclusive use of electricity from 100-percent renewable sources for heating, cooling, and cooking, and not using greenhouse gas-emitting fuels. We can use electrically powered ground or air-source heat pumps for heating and cooling and electric stoves instead of gas stoves. To its credit, the Nauset Regional School System has aggressively supported solar generation and renewable energy usage.

In June, the Wellfleet Energy and Climate Action Committee, with the support of the Wellfleet Select Board, voted to bring the net-zero emissions question to the Nauset Regional High School Building Committee. We subsequently met with the committee. We thought we had an understanding that the group would evaluate the idea of a net-zero greenhouse gas building.  Unfortunately, their response letter stated that they had already evaluated a net-zero energy usage building in 2018 and decided it was too expensive. They did not reevaluate net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

We think building a new regional high school that does not meet net-zero emissions standards would be fiscally imprudent. We should do it right the first time and benefit from lower energy, operating, and maintenance costs. We do not know how much more or less heating, cooling, or cooking powered by electricity will cost, but we thought the building committee agreed to our request to examine the issue and evaluate the relative costs.

Additionally, we urge the school building committee, the select boards of our four towns, and the citizens at town meetings to support construction of a regional high school only if it meets net-zero greenhouse gas emissions standards.

We are also concerned about the message we are sending to our students, who are knowledgeable about climate change and have actively participated in raising awareness. Raising awareness is not enough if we do not act now on our beliefs. Is our message that it is acceptable to acknowledge a crisis and still build a school for them that does not eliminate greenhouse gas emissions?

Dick Elkin is chair of the Wellfleet Energy and Climate Action Committee.

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