07 January 2018
The Trump administration offered grand pronouncements about environmental deregulation in 2017. But this is the year to hammer out the details.
“If this growth continues, schools could set Pennsylvania up as a clean energy leader and not just the fossil fuels we’re known for.”
NORTH BRADDOCK, Penn.—On Wednesday evening, 10th grader Abby Wypych stood in front of Woodland Hills School District’s board and urged them to approve a feasibility study on installing solar panels.
“Woodland Hills has provided me with many opportunities to get involved with climate action, which I’m very passionate about,” she said. “As a student with severe asthma, I’m also very concerned about the poor air quality in our region.”
Wypych and her co-presenter Lauren Palamara, a youth educator for the climate advocacy nonprofit Communitopia, reminded the board that thanks to student advocacy, Woodland Hills became the first school district in Pennsylvania to pass a climate resolution in 2020. With a goal of having net-zero emissions by 2050, the district has helped educators create climate change lessons for their classrooms, established a climate-friendly food and gardening program, improved recycling and energy efficiency in school buildings, and students hosted the region’s first youth climate action summit. In 2021, the district won a national “Best of Green Schools Award” from the U.S. Green Building Council.
“How do we continue to champion this phenomenal work?” Palamara asked. “Imagine our next news headlines if Woodland Hills takes steps toward becoming a regional leader in solar power.”
Abby Wypych presents to the Woodland Hills School Board, urging them to move forward with a proposed solar power project. (Credit: Kristina Marusic)
The pitch was effective: The school board voted to accept a letter of intent from solar developer BAI Group. As a next step, they’ll review the company’s proposal to conduct a solar feasibility study for the district.
Woodland Hills is not alone. The number of K-12 schools using solar power in Pennsylvania doubled from 2020-2021, according to a report published today by Generation180, a clean energy nonprofit.
The 108 schools using solar energy in the state represent nearly 5% of all K-12 students in the state (about 90,000 students), and about 2% of all Pennsylvania schools.
“If this growth continues, schools could set Pennsylvania up as a clean energy leader and not just the fossil fuels we’re known for,” Shannon Crooker, the Pennsylvania director at Generation180, told EHN.
In recent years, energy costs increased while the cost of solar panels decreased. According to Generation180’s report, a majority of solar projects at Pennsylvania schools were installed in low-income districts at little to no upfront cost, enabling schools to start saving money immediately.
“We’ve been able to put the money we’re saving on energy toward teacher resources and curriculum materials,” Joe Stroup, the district superintendent for Midd-West School District, which has the largest school district solar array in Pennsylvania, told EHN. “It’s also good for the community because it takes some of the burden of taxes off people in the district.”
Midd-West School District in Middleburg is located in rural central Pennsylvania. In 2019 the district began installation of its solar array, which covers 7.25 acres divided between two school properties and creates up to 2.56 megawatts of solar power. Since the system went online in 2020, the district has generated 90%-95% of the school district’s power, which is expected to reduce its electricity bill by $9 million over 40 years.Most of the schools that have installed solar panels are in the central and eastern parts of the state, with just a handful of projects in western Pennsylvania. Historically, energy costs have been low for schools in the western half of the state, but that’s beginning to change as energy rates increase statewide.
Generation180 has helped schools across the country switch to solar power. A 2020 nationwide report by the group found that the number of K-12 schools in the U.S. using solar power increased by roughly 81% from 2014-2020, and that more than 5.3 million kids and teens attend schools using solar energy. Generation180 is officially launching its Pennsylvania program with the publication of the new report on solar-powered schools in the state, and hopes to help additional school districts switch to solar with free technical assistance and resources.
“There’s a misconception in western Pennsylvania that we can’t go solar because it’s so overcast,” said Crooker. She noted that Pittsburgh’s weather is often compared to rainy Seattle, which is home to the greenest commercial building in the world, the world’s first net-zero energy high-rise apartment building, and the world’s first net-zero energy arena — all of which rely on solar energy.
Palamara hopes Woodland Hills will help lead the way. “I think this district could be a– model in the region for solar-powered schools,” she said.
Solar panels at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Scalo Solar)
Solar array at Steelton-Highspire School District
in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Credit: McClure Company)
Pennsylvania is one of 29 states that allows “third-party ownership” of solar arrays, which enables a solar developer to pay for, install, and maintain a solar energy system on a property owned by someone else (such as a school district), then sell the property owner the power generated at a discounted price.
Most school districts aren’t eligible for clean energy tax incentives because they’re public entities, but privately owned solar companies that install solar panels on schools receive substantial tax credits, making the relationship beneficial for both parties.
Nationwide, roughly 79% of the solar energy installed at schools from 2015-2020 was financed this way, according to Generation180, and in Pennsylvania, about 66% of existing school solar projects have been paid for this way. Most of the Pennsylvania schools with solar qualify for some sort of Title 1 assistance, meaning a significant portion of their students are from low-income households.
“I think many people assume solar is too expensive,” Tish Tablan, program director at Generation180, told EHN. “Many Pennsylvania schools in low-income areas have already used third-party ownership to go solar with no upfront costs.”
A school district in rural Arkansas made national headlines in 2020 after saving more than $1 million in two years by switching to solar, then raising teacher salaries by up to $15,000 a year (more experienced teachers got the highest raises). One longtime teacher in the district told reporters the raise allowed her to quit the second job she’d had to work for her entire career.
Not all solar contracts are so advantageous, so Tablan’s organization helps school districts work with independent consultants that assess schools’ needs and shop for the best deal.
Midd-West School District used third-party ownership. The district didn’t pay anything for the installation, and will instead pay the solar company, Greenworks, a set rate for the power generated by the panels for the next five years.
“That locks in what we’re paying for energy right now,” Stroup said. “As a school district with a budget, that’s very important for us.”
When five years are up, the district will have the option to purchase the solar array, which they intend to do. The district is also considering expanding its solar capacity to generate up to 110% of its energy needs, which would enable them to sell energy back to the grid.
The proposed plan in Woodland Hills School District would also take advantage of the third-party ownership option.
“The cost savings are a no-brainer in my opinion,” Crooker told the school board, “and 80% of our energy at the high school would be coming from renewable energy, which would help us meet our climate action plan goals for 2050.”
Philadelphia Junior Solar Sprint Artistic Merit winners. (Credit: Philadelphia Solar Energy Authority)
Frankford High School—where students can learn how to install solar panels, take field trips to solar sites, and can get paid summer internships. (Credit: Generation180)
Schools throughout the country are preparing students for one of the fastest-growing employment sectors: clean energy.
Pennsylvania has been ranked as a top state for solar employment growth since 2015, and school districts with their own solar arrays have a unique advantage. At Midd-West School District, for example, high school students taught fourth grade students about how the district’s solar array works this week as part of their STEM curriculum.
In 2020, the School District of Philadelphia launched “Bright Solar Futures,” one of the first solar career training programs in the country, as a three-year vocational program at Frankford High School. Students learn how to install solar panels, take field trips to solar sites, and can get paid summer internships.
“This program has enabled [students] to take control of their future in a way that will have a positive impact on their community and their environment,” Jordan Crolly, the School District of Philadelphia’s solar energy technology teacher, told Generation 180. “Having a meaningful career path to work towards that pays well has given many of the solar energy technology students a sense of direction and a reason to try in school.”
Abby Wypych and Lauren Palamara, pictured in the Woodland Hills School District administration building after giving their presentation to the school board. (Credit: Kristina Marusic)
When Generation180 published its 2020 report on solar energy at schools across the country, Pennsylvania ranked 25th in the nation for the number of K-12 schools with solar energy, lagging behind neighboring states like New York and Maryland.
“We want to help more Pennsylvania schools flip the switch to solar, especially in low-income school districts that will benefit the most from the savings,” Crooker said.
Pennsylvania has one of the largest public education systems in the U.S. with more than 1.7 million students. If Pennsylvania schools keep adopting solar energy at the same rate over the next five years, they’d sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a rate equal to covering the cities of Pittsburgh and Scranton with forests, according to Generation180’s report.
The report also determined that if every K-12 school in Pennsylvania installed an average-size solar energy system of 267 kilowatts, it would eliminate carbon dioxide emissions each year equivalent to closing 3.8 natural gas-fired power plants.
“Growing up in my generation and hearing everything bad about climate change, it kind of feels like you have no hope, like what’s the point,” Wypych said. “Having opportunities in school to make [climate advocacy] something fun honestly changes your perspective. Climate change is still this horrible thing, but we have hope because we can still change things. Just because we’re younger doesn’t mean we’re any less powerful.”
Banner photo credit: Generation180
Science and the U.S. Supreme Court are on course to become oil and water, much to the joy of Big Oil and to the dread of those who support actions that protect our planet.
Justice Alito wrote that Roe v. Wade should be struck down because the constitution “makes no reference to abortion.” With all the subtlety of a jackhammer, he asserted, “Until the latter part of the 20th century, there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. Zero. None.”
In his draft ruling, Alito conferred credibility and salience to British anti-abortion laws of the 17th and 13th centuries. Calling them “eminent common-law authorities,” he quoted the primitive wisdom of British jurists such Henry de Bracton, Sir Edward Coke and Sir Matthew Hale. De Bracton classified women as inferior; Coke and Hale believed witches can be executed; and Hale wrote that husbands cannot be accused of raping their wives.
Justice Alito went on to repeatedly cite how most U.S. states criminalized abortion during the 19th century—the same century that began with slavery and ended with codified segregation and general denial of women’s suffrage. He said past criminal sanctions on abortion refute “the notion that the abortion liberty is deeply rooted in the history or tradition of our people.”
Justice Samuel Alito (Credit: Italy in US/flickr)
The broader implications of glorifying the certitude of jurists who wrote and defended laws in eras where white men literally controlled Black bodies and treated white women as second-class citizens are terribly easy to imagine. If Alito’s draft remains the foundation of the court’s final ruling, then he is also likely prepared to let white-run industry off the hook for fouling the land, air, rivers, and lakes, poisoning communities, which today are disproportionately of color.
Given that the importance of science, let alone law guided by science, is barely mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, and then only in reference to patents and copyrights of inventions, it bodes especially ill for environmental law, climate-related law, and for science itself.
Environmental laws could easily be overturned if Justice Alito were to employ a similarly fossilized premise that “until the latter part of the 20th century, there was no support in American law for a constitutional right.” Outside of bird protection acts of the early 20th century, protections for water, air and the atmosphere are a late 20th-century development, created in the wake of Rachel Carson’s 1962 treatise on pesticides, Silent Spring. The landmark Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency were all enacted or created in the 1970s.
Fossil fuel and chemical polluters, business lobbyists and conservative private land interests have fought these laws and the EPA since their inception and they made fresh headway during the Trump administration, which undertook a widespread effort to gut environmental protections and slashed staffing of the EPA back to levels of the 1980s. Trump is out of office, but he left behind a 6-3 conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court.
If Justice Alito marshals his conservative colleagues against environmental laws as the leaked draft decision in Roe v Wade suggests he has done, there are many opportunities ahead for the court to curtail their reach, the EPA’s authority to use them, and, ultimately, the level to which the nation can fight climate change and environmental injustice.
The Court is expected soon to render its judgment in West Virginia v. EPA. At issue in this case is whether and how the EPA can set standards for carbon emissions at power plants. When the Obama administration attempted to implement the Clean Power Plan, it said that the new standards would fight climate change, create tens of thousands of jobs in renewable energy and avoid up to 3,600 premature deaths from soot and smog.
The coal industry and conservative states want the high court to limit EPA’s powers solely to the regulation of individual power plants. They appear to have a sympathetic ear in Justice Alito. During February’s oral arguments in West Virginia v. EPA, Justice Alito badgered Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar to explain how the government was not overreaching by claiming “the authority to set industrial policy and energy policy and balance such things as jobs, economic impact, the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change, as well as costs.”
Unsatisfied with the answer Solicitor General Prelogar gave, Justice Alito pressed on, sounding like the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which ceaselessly fights regulations to control climate gases, saying the controls will cost jobs. Despite the data that has led the Secretary General of the United Nations to call climate change “code red for humanity,” Justice Alito told Solicitor General Prelogar that the EPA was making decisions based on “incommensurable” factors that have no common standard of measure. He asked her, “What weight do you assign to the effects on climate change, which some people believe is a matter of civilizational survival, and the costs and the effect on jobs?”
Justice Alito appears to be so vexed about the EPA’s authority that it is reasonable to be concerned that he might lead the 6-3 conservative majority to overturn Massachusetts v. EPA, the landmark 2007 decision that said the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emitted from new motor vehicles. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said gases that fuel global warming “fit well within the Clean Air Act’s capacious definition of ‘air pollutant.’” He emphasized that “The harms associated with climate change are serious and well recognized.”
Justice Alito was a dissenting vote in that 5-4 decision and later explained his decision in a 2017 speech to the right-wing Claremont Institute. “A pollutant is a subject that is harmful to human beings or to animals or to plants,” he said. “Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. Carbon dioxide is not harmful to ordinary things, to human beings, or to animals, or to plants. It’s actually needed for plant growth. All of us are exhaling carbon dioxide right now. So, if it’s a pollutant, we’re all polluting.”
This, of course, defies the scientific consensus about the damage carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels is doing to the planet. There is now a 99.9 percent consensus among climate scientists that global warming is driven by the spewing of carbon dioxide and other gases. After the Massachusetts v. EPA decision, the EPA under the Obama administration found in 2009 that carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride are indeed pollutants which “endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations.”
Justice Alito has displayed similar cynicism about water protection. In the 2022-23 term, the court will hearSackett v. EPA, a case in which the EPA required a permit under the Clean Water Act from an Idaho couple that wanted to build a home on land containing wetlands near a lake. The EPA under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations said hydrologic science clearly connects wetlands to larger bodies of water, even if one cannot see the connections on the surface. In a 2015 report based on 1,200 peer-reviewed publications, the EPA said:
“There is ample evidence that many wetlands and open waters located outside of riparian areas and floodplains, even when lacking surface water connections, provide physical, chemical, and biological functions that could affect the integrity of downstream waters. Some potential benefits of these wetlands are due to their isolation rather than their connectivity.”
Disregarding this science and the fact that the EPA says a third of wetlands are in “poor biological condition,” Justice Alito has signaled that he essentially needs to be able to actually see the water flow from wetlands into lakes on a Google Earth map. He was one of the dissenters in the 6-3 decision in 2020 that held that wastewater pumped into groundwater by Maui County in Hawaii which reached the sea a half mile away was covered by the Clean Water Act. He said permits should be required only “when a pollutant is discharged directly from a point source to navigable waters.”
In the 2006 Rapanosdecision, Justice Anthony Kennedy determined that a wetland should have a “significant nexus” such as a navigable lake or river to be eligible for protection under “Waters of the U.S.” But Justice Alito joined Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts in saying they would have afforded wetlands even less protection. They would have limited protection to “only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection” to larger bodies of water.
U.S. Supreme Court. (Credit: Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)
Justice Alito’s longstanding consistency in wanting to restrict EPA authority makes it transparent where he wants the court to go. In his Claremont Institute speech, he depicted Sackett v. EPA as an example of where the EPA demonstrated the “tyranny” of government agencies that had the power to “make the law, and to enforce the law, and to decide disputes about the application of the law.”
Of course Justice Alito’s views are also tremendously unpopular. A 2019 Pew survey found that two thirds of respondents said the federal government is doing too little to protect water quality, too little to protect air quality, and too little to fight climate change. The same survey found that just 20 percent of the population doubted that humans are causing climate change and some 77 percent say it is time to prioritize renewable energy over fossil fuels.
Justice Alito may think, as he said in his Claremont speech, that people are “of two minds” about climate change or that only “some” people think climate change is a matter of survival. He may think that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant and that wetlands are not vitally connected to rivers and lakes. He may think that—as part of the dissent in Massachusetts v. EPA—the connection between global warming gases from vehicles and loss of coastal land “is far too speculative to establish causation.”
Most people in the United States no longer speculate about any of those things. Care for the environment might not have been deeply rooted in the nation’s laws until the 1970s, but millions of people are now reeling from loss of land, life, and property from extreme climate events. All this appears lost on Justice Alito. Unleashed in the conservative supermajority, all signs point to his desire to lead the high court in a tyrannical siege on science that flies in the face of the environmental wishes of the majority in the United States.
Derrick Z. Jackson is on the advisory board of Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate. He's also a Union of Concerned Scientist Fellow in climate and energy. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.
This post originally ran on The Union of Concerned Scientists blog and is republished here with permission.
Banner photo: Rally after the leaked Supreme Court opinion, May 3, 2022. (Credit: Victoria Pickering/flickr)
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