PROVIDENCE — A coalition of unions and environmentalists on Tuesday called for Rhode Island to “decarbonize” all its public school buildings by 2035 by shifting them from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
Climate Jobs Rhode Island renewed its “Green and Healthy Schools” campaign, urging the General Assembly to pass legislation that would spur investments in “net-zero” school buildings. It first launched the campaign last year.
“Decarbonization will save school districts millions of dollars in energy costs and critical pathways to good union jobs in the process,” said Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and co-chair of Climate Jobs Rhode Island. “It is time to truly invest in our kids by rebuilding our schools for the future. Every public school building should be equipped with solar panels and energy efficiency retrofits.”
Senate Majority Leader Ryan W. Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat, and Representative Arthur Handy, a Cranston Democrat, have introduced legislation that would meet a “zero energy capable” standard by Dec. 31, 2035.
The bill defines that standard as meaning that annual energy delivered to the schools must be less than or equal to the renewable energy generated onsite, or the sum of renewable energy generated onsite; renewable energy generated offsite through a power purchase agreement; and the value of purchased certificates that meet the standard for a new renewable energy resources.
The bill also calls for the addition of one full-time employee at the state Department of Education to serve as an energy modeler for school districts, and it provides direction for districts to tap funding in the federal infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act, plus other funding sources.
The coalition says decarbonizing public school buildings would save school districts millions of dollars in energy costs, create “pathways to good union jobs,” and slash carbon emissions so Rhode Island can the targets established in the Act on Climate, a 2021 law that makes the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable.
“Climate change affects all of us, but it has had especially negative and long-lasting impacts on low-income and communities of color,” said Priscilla De La Cruz, senior director of government affairs at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and co-chair of Climate Jobs Rhode Island. “While the average age of Rhode Island school buildings hovers around a half-century, the districts in our urban core have some of the poorest conditions and greatest deficiencies.”
For example, she said six of Providence’s middle schools are an average of 90 years old.
“Prioritizing investments in our schools located in frontline communities is a matter of justice,” De La Cruz said. “These communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of decades of disinvestment. Building green and healthy schools, especially in communities that are on the frontline of climate change, can protect us against the climate crisis.”
Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, noted that Rhode Island built the country’s first fully operational offshore wind farm near Block Island.
“That project put hundreds of our hard-working union members to work and paved the way for the rest of the country to invest in offshore wind,” he said. “We can continue to be national leaders. Transitioning all K-12 public schools to net-zero emission with strong labor and equity standards will create over 11,000 jobs over the next decade.”
Handy said today’s children are part of the generation most impacted by climate change. “Getting our schools on a path to net zero will be a big step forward in providing them with the environment they deserve in the present as well as the future,” he said.