To be carbon neutral by 2040, here are the steps Salt Lake City schools are starting now

Among other changes, solar panels are being installed at six schools as part of a $29.5 million project.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A crew begins the process of installing 510 solar panels to the roof of Whittier Elementary, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, in order to offset 60% of the school’s energy use.

Replacing buzzing fluorescent lights with energy-efficient LED fixtures. Updating toilets and urinals to reduce their demand for water. Beginning construction next summer at Uintah Elementary and Backman Elementary to make them completely “electric.”

These are just a few elements of an ambitious plan to have 100% of Salt Lake City School District operations carbon neutral by 2040, school board members and administrators said during a news conference at Whittier Elementary on Wednesday.

They toured a boy’s restroom with updated water systems and a classroom with new LED lighting. And that afternoon, a crane started lifting what will be a total of 510 solar panels onto the roof of the elementary, built in 2001.

The district’s efforts began in 2019, when students from West, East and Highland high schools organized and developed a sustainability, clean energy and carbon neutrality resolution, which the school board unanimously adopted in 2020. The board adopted its sustainability action plan a year ago.

”We voted for it and it’s good to see it actually happening,” said board member Mohamed Baayd.

What is the district doing?

The first phase of the sustainability action plan entails, in part, installing solar panels at Nibley Park School, which has grades K-8, and five elementary schools: Whittier, Washington, Emerson, Newman and Bonneville, where panels have already been installed.

In total, 2,500 panels will be installed across the six schools. Paul Schulte, executive director of auxiliary services, said schools with newer roofs were chosen to avoid the costly process of taking panels off for repairs.

All schools in the district will get an LED light retrofit. That project is expected to be completed by next spring and to result in $600,000 in electrical cost savings.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Greg Libecci, energy and resource manager for facility services at the Salt Lake City School District gives a tour to show water-saving measures implemented at Whittier Elementary on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2022.

Additionally, the district is taking water saving measures by adding aerators to faucets, reducing water flow from 1.5 gallons per minute to .5 gallons per minute, and making updates to urinals and toilets, reducing water usage between 30% and 40%.

What will it cost and how is it being paid for?

The total project cost is projected at $29.5 million.

The district will pay back a loan for $23.4 million in costs using savings accrued from switching over to more energy efficient systems, in an arrangement known as a tax-exempt lease purchase agreement. Schulte said $2 million for the project came from incentives provided by Rocky Mountain Power and Dominion Energy and some federal funds.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mike Walton of Creative Energies gives a solar power demonstration to 6th grade students at Whittier Elementary, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, where the company has begun the process of installing 510 solar panels to the roof in order to offset 60% of the school’s energy use. A Sustainability Resolution passed in June 2020 by the Board of Education was the culmination of a student-led effort.

What happens if a school closes?

The school district is facing declining enrollment and earlier this year discussed, but later postponed, the process of considering which schools might be closed.

Four of the six schools chosen to receive solar panels were on a list of lower-enrollment schools proposed for evaluation. Enrollment at Nibley Park and Washington Elementary last October was less than half their capacity.

[Read more: As Salt Lake City booms, its schools are emptying]

Schulte said sustainability and declining enrollment were two separate issues, with different processes for consideration. “We do have the capacity to pivot,” Schulte said, when asked if solar panels might be moved if one of the selected schools closes in the future.

However, moving solar panels can be cost prohibitive and “it’s not necessarily advisable,” according to Lin Alder, an account executive for McKinstry, the company overseeing the installations for the district.

What’s next

Energy use in the 43 school and office buildings owned and maintained by the district is by far its largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the sustainability plan. The plan calls for increasing energy efficiency and the amount of renewable energy used by the district, and electrifying vehicles, buildings and other equipment.

The electrification pilot project at Unitah and Backman elementary schools is scheduled to begin construction in 2023. Mechanical space and water heating systems will be converted to electric. Those schools will only be the first to go off natural gas, if all goes according to the district’s plan.