‘Next generation of climate leaders’: These Utah students are trying to get their school district to commit to clean energy

“The environment is such a crucial part of what our identity is as Utahns,” one student said.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skyline High School students Sophia Cheng, left, and Adalayde Scott, are two of the students advocating for the Granite School District to commit to 100% clean electricity by 2030.

Air quality is an environmental concern 15-year-old Adalayde Scott has been passionate about for most of her life — it’s personal for her.

The Skyline High School sophomore has seen her three younger brothers, who’ve dealt with lung problems since birth, struggle on bad air quality days. She said her youngest brother, a preschooler, has been hospitalized several times and sent home with oxygen.

“It’s really sad to see someone that you love being impacted,” Adalayde said. “And it’s especially difficult knowing that we live in an area that doesn’t even experience the worst air pollution in the valley.”

That’s one reason why Scott joined four other Granite School District students last year to campaign, with help from the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, for a clear commitment from the district: to operate on 100% clean electricity by 2030, and all other energy sectors by 2040.

That could mean operating on solar and wind power, and stepping away from natural gas for building heat and cafeteria cooking, said former Granite student Ava Curtis, who is now a sophomore at the University of Utah and helps with the Granite Clean Energy Campaign. It also means replacing fuel-reliant school buses with electric ones.

What their work looks like

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skyline High School sophomore Adalayde Scott, seen here on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, is one of the students advocating for the Granite School District to commit to 100% clean electricity by 2030.

The Granite students’ efforts follow successful bids for similar clean energy commitments from the Salt Lake City School District in 2020 and the Park City School District in 2021 — both of which were championed by local students, who the Sierra Club also helped.

The initiatives have unfolded in a state where K-12 buildings rank as some of the highest producers of carbon emissions per million square feet nationally. That’s according to a 2021 study from the New Buildings Institute, Coalition for Climate Education Policy and UndauntedK12.

That study found school buildings across Utah produce 889,788 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. When measured per million square feet of annual emissions, the figure ranked eighth-highest in the country.

“We really have an opportunity to educate the next generation of climate leaders,” said Bekah Ashley, lead organizer for climate and energy at the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter.

In Granite, the students have so far focused on encouraging the district to apply for federal funding opportunities, including the U.S. Department of Education’s Energy CLASS prize, which the district was awarded last year. The grant offers $100,000 to help districts identify and implement energy and health improvements to school buildings, said Granite spokesperson Ben Horsley.

The kids have also encouraged the district to apply for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus program for the past few years — though so far, without success, Horsley said, in part because Granite is not considered a “priority district” for the award, he added.

According to the EPA, the grants are prioritized for high-need school districts and low-income areas that have 20% or more students living in poverty; rural districts; and districts funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, among other criteria.

In Granite, about 12.7% of children ages 5-17 are considered impoverished, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) for 2020, which the EPA referenced when awarding 2022 grants.

How the district has responded to the ‘clean energy kids’

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skyline High School students Adalayde Scott, left, and Sophia Cheng speak to The Salt Lake Tribune about their push for the Granite School District to commit to 100% clean electricity by 2030 during an interview at Skyline High School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024.

Despite the students’ efforts, Horsley said “it’s simply just not feasible” for the district to commit to 100% clean renewable electricity and energy — without a tax increase.

The district already has more than $1 billion in capital-infrastructure needs at the moment, he said, noting that construction costs are only expected to increase.

“Our board of education has been very clear that we need to make every effort that is fiscally prudent to pursue clean energy initiatives,” Horsley said. The district will do that “as quickly as our budget will allow.”

He pointed to the district’s new Cyprus High School building, for example, where geothermal wells are being installed to reduce energy costs.

The “clean energy kids,” as he dubs them, have been helpful in identifying certain grant opportunities, Horsley acknowledged. But the district has also been trying to “educate them on how some of these things work” when it comes to district finances, he said.

The students recognize the position the district is in, said Skyline High junior Sophia Cheng, who joined the efforts this school year.

But they continue to do what they can to encourage the district to make clean energy a priority. Many younger students have had recess days canceled because of poor air quality. Classmates of Sophia’s have had to stay home on bad air quality days, like Adalayde’s brothers sometimes do.

“The environment is such a crucial part of what our identity is as Utahns,” Sophia said.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skyline High School junior Sophia Cheng is part of a group of Granite students working with the Sierra Club's Utah chapter.

Research from the University of Utah has found a correlation between increased absenteeism and Salt Lake City’s winter inversions. Spikes in air pollution have also been associated with lower English and math test scores among third graders, according to U. research.

“It’s really important to both health and learning that students have safe air,” said Curtis, adding that districts can also make changes like installing newer, electric HVAC systems.

In the meantime, the students value having a seat at the table, as people “really do want to listen to the voices of youth,” Sophia said.

“I still have influence,” Adalayde added, and that influence allows her and kids like her to “do so many incredible things, to ensure a better future for myself and others growing up in this generation with me.”