Climate Action Heats Up, Garden Grove Cools Down

It was another smoldering day in Southern California in 2014, when our Climate Smart Schools team started to conduct energy audits for the Garden Grove Unified School District (GGUSD). Thermometers read 100°F in the classrooms. The elementary school kids were putting their heads down on their desks to try to cool off. Teachers walked along the rows of desks with water-filled spray bottles to mist and cool their students. 

Only 15% of the buildings in the district’s 70 campuses had air conditioning. Much of the A/C that did exist was damaged, inoperable, or inefficient.

Some of the teachers experimented with large floor fans. Needless to say, not all solutions are created equal. The loud fans blew students’ papers off their desks and made it difficult for the kids to focus or to hear their teachers. One teacher spoke into a microphone headset connected to a speaker system to try to teach students over the noise of the fans. 

School districts throughout the state are trying to educate the next generation while enduring the increasing impacts of climate change in the classroom. Extreme heat makes it significantly harder for teachers to teach and for students to learn. We recommend reading the research of our colleagues at UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation showing that “learning decreases with an increase in the number of hot school days.”

Although it is a low-income district with a culture of frugality, GGUSD ultimately passed a school district bond to pay for new HVAC on every campus. However, the new A/C would pose another major challenge: As a district with a tight budget, GGUSD’s energy costs could skyrocket; it was projecting energy cost increases of more than 100% from the A/C. Not to mention paying off the bonds. GGUSD would need to find a way to reduce its energy consumption with building retrofits and energy efficiency measures. 

Thankfully, the California Clean Energy Jobs Act (Prop 39) provided $11.5 million for energy efficiency to GGUSD. 

A decade ago, Climate Resolve helped place Prop 39 on the ballot – with major kudos going to Tom Steyer and Kevin de Leon for this successful initiative. Prop 39 closed a corporate tax loophole and allocated $2.5 billion over 5 years to energy efficiency and solar investments in California’s public schools. 

After conducting energy audits, Climate Resolve and the firm EcoMotion provided its assessment and recommendations to GGUSD’s Facilities Department to help the district tie together energy efficiency measures as part of a district-wide building modernization effort.

So what happened in the seven years since our initial audits?

The district implemented its comprehensive building modernization program that included LEDs, greater daylighting, and lighting controls; cool roofs that reflect the sun’s energy and moderate classroom temperatures; insulation, double-pane windows, and other updates to building envelopes; high efficiency pool heaters, pool covers, and electric pumps that reduce natural gas use; new digital thermostats with centralized controls; and an energy management system that we helped them install to track real-time energy usage, water consumption, and metrics for further improvement. 

And that’s just to name a few. From renovating the electrical circuitry and plumbing to upgrading the telecommunications systems to providing new drinking fountains to retrofitting the schools for better accessibility for the diabled, there was hardly a crevice of GGUSD that wasn’t significantly upgraded by the district’s Facilities Department. In addition to Prop 39 funds, Climate Resolve also helped GGUSD win a $2 million state DROPS grant for drought mitigation. Then we helped them manage the design and development of natural stormwater capture and drought mitigation solutions at three high schools, and also implemented a climate education and outreach program with students, teachers, and staff. These new bioswales and drought-tolerant landscapes have become living laboratories for GGUSD’s science classes.

For the past 7 years, our team took the Prop 39 paperwork off the hands, desks, and desktops of GGUSD’s Facilities Department. We managed all of the reporting requirements for the uses of funds and project performance metrics to the California Energy Commission, which approved GGUSD’s final report this month. So it’s time to celebrate!

In addition to assisting GGUSD’s physical transformation, Climate Resolve supported a cultural transformation at the district. Seven years ago, the district was concerned that going green would compromise its need for fiscal frugality. Today the district is enjoying energy cost savings even with new A/C. And the district wants to do more.

“Our work at Garden Grove Unified is proof that improving a building’s energy efficiency is essential when addressing climate resiliency,” said Thelma Briseno, Climate Resolve’s Senior Director of Energy & Water Programs. “Insulation, double pane windows, and cool roofs all contributed to the overall energy savings even though GGUSD added an enormous amount of energy use from installing much needed air conditioning to classrooms.”

But what do the students notice the most? They can learn comfortably.

“Students and teachers are now able to concentrate on learning,” Briseno explained. “Forcing our kids to concentrate in 100°F temperatures is insufferable. Now GGUSD can continue providing award-winning education while successfully minimizing the impacts of extreme heat.”

Climate Resolve is GGUSD’s proud partner. If GGUSD can do it, then other school districts can also become resilient to climate change and foster better places to learn for future generations. 

Emmanuel Vega

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