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Energy and Education

Chelsea Harnish column: Energy-efficient solutions are the key to improving indoor air quality in Virginia schools

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This summer I saw parents, children and friends running around playgrounds, taking trips, spreading blankets in parks and breathing in the fresh air of a summer night. The hopeful moods were unlike anything I’d seen in more than a year.

It was a milestone, too. Statewide restrictions had been eased on the pandemic; its effects were felt in every home and business across Virginia.

I’ve enjoyed seeing a bit of normalcy return as I watched my daughter swim, bike and play outside with friends after spending her year of kindergarten learning at home. Like other parents, I’ve also been thinking about her back-to-school days ahead while grappling with concerns expressed by public health officials about the new delta variant.

As we prepare to send our children back school — some for the first time in 18 months — school systems and state leaders must apply a hard-earned lesson: The air we breathe indoors has great bearing on our health and safety.

It isn’t only about COVID-19, which has put a new spotlight on the importance of HVAC and energy systems. Even before the pandemic, research showed that poor insulation, leaky windows and improper ventilation contribute to many of the leading causes of death in the United States, such as asthma, heart disease, chronic respiratory illness and stroke.

This is familiar territory for those of us who work in the energy efficiency industry, including the 100 startups, localities, Fortune 500 companies, state agencies and community nonprofits that comprise the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council.

The common goal of our broad coalition is to ensure that energy efficiency is an integral part of Virginia’s economy and clean energy future. We also understand how energy-efficient solutions and indoor air quality work hand in hand.

That’s why, before the General Assembly convened Aug. 2, we encouraged Gov. Ralph Northam to include $250 million to improve HVAC systems in K-12 schools as part of Virginia’s allocation of the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress passed this year.

We were pleased to see the General Assembly approve these much-needed funds in the final budget. But we haven’t gone far enough to provide school districts with the resources they need to ensure maximum energy efficiency while addressing indoor air quality.

As schools scrambled to ensure our children’s safety during the past 18 months, some of the improvements to indoor air quality threw energy efficiency out the window — literally.

Think of your home. You wouldn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a new central air system before fixing a hole in the roof — and you wouldn’t blast the AC while the doors and windows are wide open either.

Purchasing more stringent air filters without considering the system as a whole causes undue strain and can decrease the lifespan of aging HVAC systems, like those in many of Virginia’s school buildings.

That’s why we had hoped for additional resources from the Virginia energy office, upfront energy assessments to identify specific needs for each building and training for staff who will operate and maintain these systems. If school districts do not have the necessary resources, they risk increasing costs through higher electric bills and early replacement of systems, falling short of desired improvements and wasting an unprecedented opportunity.

For learning environments, improved indoor air quality provides another key benefit. Research noted by the Environmental Protection Agency tells us that better classroom ventilation results in better student performance. Healthier learning environments reduce absenteeism, improve test scores and enhance productivity for students and staff.

We also must recognize that some of Virginia’s school systems are suffering more than others because of funding inadequacies and aging infrastructure.

More than half of the commonwealth’s schools are more than 50 years old, according to a report from the Virginia Department of Education, and many of the oldest buildings are concentrated in historically economically disadvantaged communities across Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads and other urban centers. All but one of Virginia’s eight regions have school buildings that have been in use for more than a century.

These federal dollars provide an unprecedented opportunity to make significant upgrades to school buildings with aging or inadequate HVAC. But we must provide the expertise, guidance, support and financial resources that schools need to improve indoor air quality and deploy the energy-efficiency upgrades that help make the most of their resources.

While these measures weren’t included in the budget language passed by the General Assembly, we encourage school districts to take advantage of these funds to improve indoor air quality, while also increasing energy efficiency of their systems to reduce overall costs. Many of our members — from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, to energy service companies, to design consultants — are ready to guide school districts to the resources that can help make these critical improvements.

While we strive to get more people to work, let’s make sure students, teachers and staff are set up for success in healthier buildings. They deserve a safer, more energy-efficient workplace.

Chelsea Harnish is executive director of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council, founded in 2012 as the voice for the energy efficiency industry in the commonwealth. Contact her at: chelsea@vaeec.org

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