For the most part we're talking publicly funded schools, many of them old and inefficient, but most sporting large rooftops and acres of surrounding land. This, in the field of green technology, is what many would call low-hanging fruit.
That's why it was encouraging to hear the Ontario government's announcement that it will spend $550 million over two years to make more than 1,000 schools in the province more energy efficient. Beyond creating more than 5,000 short-term jobs, the projects that are expected to result from this financial injection will ultimately lower the long-term energy costs for budget-constrained school boards.
Large, flat rooftops are ideal locations for solar thermal and photovoltaic systems, and sports fields are excellent places to install geothermal systems for heating and cooling.
The energy consumed in schools can also be managed more efficiently.
Occupancy and daylight harvesting sensors can cut down on non-essential lighting, and smart thermostats can do a better job of balancing heating and cooling requirements. Major work can be done with minimal disruption during summer break.
Steve Thuringer, executive director of facilities at Upper Canada College, says energy savings can be enormous if an institution is focused. The private boys' school, founded 180 years ago, doesn't face the financial challenges of Ontario's public schools, but they all have land, roof space, leaky buildings and operating budgets they must work with against a backdrop of rising energy prices.
About six years ago UCC decided to embrace the principles of sustainability and the school principal at the time, J. Douglas Blakey, laid out a plan that touched all aspects of the school, including its curriculum, culture and the management of its facilities.
On the facilities side, Thuringer tackled the easy changes first, among them the installation of new energy-efficient lights and greater attention to times when energy is needed and when it's not.
"We figured if we began to conserve energy and kept our budget intact we could plug the savings into more conservation efforts," he recalls, adding that in the first year some simple, painless changes saved the school $200,000 on its natural gas and electricity bill. "That was when we sat back and said, Wow! What happens if we really try?"
It didn't take long before Thuringer began to look seriously at offsetting the school's energy needs with renewables.
He looked into wind and solar, but decided that geothermal was the best bet over the long term. "The biggest payback came from geothermal because the largest asset we have is the land."
In 2006, an opportunity presented itself in the form of a planned renovation of the school's main sports field. "We were already digging up the field and so figured, let's put the geothermal piping in the ground," Thuringer says.
He knew the aging hockey arena beside the field would need to be torn down and replaced, so the plan was to get the geothermal piping in the ground and use the underground loop to make the ice in the new arena, keep it cool, and heat other areas of the facility, including the seats. Toronto-based Groundswell Geothermal Inc. was contracted to do the fieldwork.
The new arena, which holds one Olympic-sized and one NHL-regulation rink, officially opened in February and so far the energy savings are impressive a reduction of 38 per cent compared to a conventional complex.
The arena has a white roof to enhance its ability to reflect sunlight. Better reflection means less heat absorption on the roof. The roof also captures rainwater that is used in toilets to reduce the use of clean city water.
A small room inside the arena has two desktop computers used by the facilities manager to monitor and control all aspects of energy use in the building. Special software that connects to all sensors, equipment and lighting in the building lets Thuringer analyze patterns and fine-tune energy use.
But this arena is just the beginning. UCC has seven fields, totalling nearly three hectares, and so far only the main field has geothermal loops under it.
"Every field that gets renovated from here will get its own loop," says Thuringer, adding that the broader vision is to create a district heating system that provides heating and cooling to all buildings on the UCC campus.
Now, most public schools aren't campus-type environments, but other buildings in the community do surround them. Those buildings could benefit from the geothermal heating and cooling installed on school property.
In this sense, Ontario's schools represent the beginnings of mini-district heating systems across the province. But here's the trick: It takes a bit of planning and foresight and negotiation within the community to achieve the best outcome. As Thuringer points out, you have to look at these projects through a "lens of sustainability" and beyond the confines of a few years.
The McGuinty government's plan to throw $550 million at our school boards over the next two years so they can go out and make their properties greener is commendable.
It will create thousands of temporary jobs and provide some economic stimulus to communities across the province urban, suburban and rural.
Still, it would be a waste if that money was distributed through a narrow lens and without the kind of careful planning that can turn a green school into an anchor for a greener community.