Massachusetts is pushing hard to get to a climate-friendlier future — shifting vehicles and buildings away from fossil fuels and working to bring climate change into the decision-making process at every level of government.
But elected officials and climate advocates say the state’s progress has had a notable exception: new school buildings, the vast majority of which are approved and partially funded by the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
Since 2021, the year the state passed its landmark climate legislation committing to net-zero emissions by 2050, the school building authority has approved 30 new school projects for construction. The vast majority — 21 of the 30 — will be built to burn fossil fuels long into the future, and well past 2050.
“The MSBA is the elephant in the room,” said Sara Ross, cofounder of UndauntedK12, a nonprofit group advocating for climate-friendly schools. “The MSBA has not evolved its programs to be a partner for the state in reaching its climate goals.”
The school building authority does have incentives for energy-efficient schools, but its policies allow for the use of efficient gas equipment and do nothing to specifically encourage or require districts to ditch fossil fuel, which is what climate experts say new schools must do. School districts could opt to use the authority’s efficiency incentives to make upgrades necessary for converting to electric heat, such as installing efficient windows and insulation. But critics of the MSBA say the existing incentives are too small to cover what is needed. And due to quirks in the incentive structure, the poorest communities can end up being ineligible to receive them at all.
While a 2022 climate law requires the authority to catalog how the state’s schools are heated and cooled and create a plan for increasing electrification, the resulting report isn’t due until the end of next year — too little, too late, according to critics of the program.
For years, elected officials and climate advocates have urged the MSBA to adopt stronger policies to get schools to shift away from fossil fuels, but they say they have been disappointed by a lack of response.
“I think we have to be in the position now of not just encouraging it by offering small incentives, but I think we have to go a long way towards convincing school districts that this is what they need to do moving forward,” said Representative Jeffrey Roy, of Franklin, a coauthor of last year’s climate legislation.
The MSBA falls under the treasurer’s office, and since 2007 it has awarded $7.8 billion for major school construction projects. The funding comes from one penny of the state’s sales tax, and the MSBA disburses funds based on need. The lower-wealth the community, the greater the reimbursement it can receive, up to 80 percent of total costs.
Jack McCarthy, executive director of the MSBA, defended the authority’s track record on green buildings, noting that, in addition to energy efficiency incentives, the authority requires schools to be built to efficiency standards higher than required by the building code. But, he said, cutting fossil fuels can come with a cost. “One of the reasons we don’t force things on people that are going to cost more is we’re trying to be sensitive to their limited dollars,” he said.
Advocates say net-zero buildings don’t have to cost any more than conventional construction.
“If you start with the goals from the beginning, and you have a design team who knows how to do this, and this isn’t their first time doing it, then it doesn’t have to cost more money,” said Meredith Elbaum, executive director of Build Environment Plus, a member-driven nonprofit advancing the sustainability of the built environment in the region.
Two years ago on Earth Day, more than 100 local officials from 45 communities sent a letter to the MSBA asking it to adopt new policies that would tie funding to three requirements: that heating and cooling be supplied by all-electric sources; that parking lots offer electric vehicle charging stations for staff and visitors; and that schools built on or near wetlands or floodplains take into account future flooding scenarios.
Among those signing off on the letter were Mayor Michelle Wu and Attorney General Andrea Campbell, who were then Boston city councilors, as well as the mayors of Cambridge, Framingham, and Melrose.
School building authority officials agreed to meet with some of the local officials, but no changes came of it, said Emily Norton, a Newton city councilor who helped organize the letter and attended the Zoom meeting.
“It’s disappointing, two years later, to see no action from the letter,” she said. “In year 2023 it makes no sense that the Commonwealth is investing tens of millions of dollars to build new school buildings heated and cooled with fossil fuels, and without climate resilience requirements.”
McCarthy said that he appreciated what they were asking for, but that decisions made by districts come down to costs.
“The thing that some of the advocates don’t realize is you’ve got some gateway cities that are so very poor, and it’s a lot cheaper for them to operate a building with fossil fuel than it’s going to be for electricity,” he said.
Clean-energy experts say that as renewable energy increases, electricity rates will probably fall, while natural gas is likely to get more expensive.
In Haverhill, where the median household income was nearly 20 percent below the state average in 2020, it’s a question the School Department is wading through now. The new Consentino Middle School will be funded in part by the MSBA, and school facilities director Stephen Dorrance said they will make sure to plan for efficiency measures so they can get the 2 percent additional incentive points. But it remains to be seen whether they use natural gas or go all-electric.
“Some of the more environmentally friendly alternatives have significant upfront costs, so they drive the project cost up and to the point where they could make it not feasible,” he said. Before coming to Haverhill, Dorrance said, he worked in Belmont, where the median household income was more than double Haverhill’s. The last project he worked on there was fully net-zero, and in an ideal world, he said, they could do that in Haverhill, too. “But that was in a much different district,” he said.
New buildings — whether homes, offices, or schools — are considered the low-hanging fruit of the shift away from fossil fuels, because it’s easier to design and build climate-friendly buildings from the start than to convert an older building. And the more than 1,800 schools in Massachusetts have a significant carbon footprint, emitting 880,000 tons every year, according to UndauntedK12. That’s the equivalent of driving nearly 200,000 cars for a year, according to the EPA.
A Feb. 2022 analysis commissioned by the state energy department found that, under a new climate-friendly building code that communities can choose to adopt, electric schools would cost less than gas to build and operate over a 50-year lifespan — and that was before Mass Save and the federal Inflation Reduction Act introduced hefty incentives for the equipment needed for a net-zero building. The federal incentive, for example, can cover as much as 50 percent of geothermal heat pumps and solar systems.
But it can be hard to wade through the information, especially as incentive programs are introduced and amended. That’s something advocates want to see the MSBA do, too: serve as a translator to help districts better understand the clean-energy incentives available to them.
The state’s new climate chief, Melissa Hoffer, said the Healey administration “believes that school buildings have a key role to play in helping us meet our climate goals.” She said the administration will be working with the MSBA, Treasurer Deb Goldberg, and others to create more fossil-fuel-free schools.
At a recent event at Boston University, deputy climate chief Jonathan Schrag took it even further. “In Massachusetts, we build about 20 new schools a year,” he said. “There should be no more schools built with fossil fuels. This is the opportunity.”