Students push for energy efficiency
Environmental rally calls for grid neutrality by 2050
Charles E. Shoemaker/The Gazette
"You're a dirty boy, coal."
Such was the hand-painted banner in the cafeteria of Albert Einstein High School, where more than 100 county students gathered at an environmental rally on Friday to send a message to the county Board of Education: We want grid neutrality, and we want it soon.
The Montgomery County Student Environmental Activists (MCSEA), a student group comprised of about 50 county public and private school students, is lobbying the Board of Education to commit to making Montgomery County Public Schools nearly grid neutral, or energy self-sufficient, by 2050.
The rally, which featured speakers from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and music from high school and college performers, was designed to get more signatures on the grid neutrality petition being circulated by MCSEA, as well as generate energy among the student body to attend Monday's Board meeting, where the group presented the petition and request.
Mary Claire Erskine, a senior at Einstein High and the campaign director for MCSEA, said a previous shot at testifying before the school board "was not as successful in conveying our desire to get a commitment."
"[The board] has been shy to take a commitment toward anything, so that's what the rally is really aiming to get them to do," Erskine said.
MCSEA has been working on the endeavor all school year, and gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition asking the board to make the commitment, which would require 20 percent grid neutrality by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.
Sara Peterson, a Walter Johnson sophomore soliciting petition signatures at the rally, said she "found my place in the climate movement."
"I feel like now is the time when everyone who's young, everyone who's old and everyone who knows what's right should be involved in the climate movement," Peterson said. She said because MCSEA is a student group, it was obvious to start with the schools.
Erskine agreed that smaller projects could have been taken on, but "Instead of just recycling or stream cleanup, we're trying to get government change."
The group has members from several area high schools, including Walter Johnson, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Montgomery Blair, Gaithersburg, John F. Kennedy and even Sidwell Friends. In addition to broad membership, MCSEA used sophisticated campaign tactics to promote the rally, making hundreds of phone calls using nearly 500 numbers obtained from an earlier campaign to ask the next presidential administration to support carbon neutral policies.
At an October economic forum held by the Board of Education, members of MCSEA were told that in the current economic climate it would be difficult to make their request a priority.
The group now has a plan to achieve the commitment, said co-director Gabriel Schwartzman, a Walter Johnson senior. MCSEA is proposing using a revolving funding mechanism to finance solar panels and other improvements to county schools, in which an initial "down payment" would be made on the first project, and money saved from reduced energy expenditures would be placed in an account to finance future projects.
Schwartzman said the group modeled the idea after something similar being done in California, but said he could not provide specific savings estimates because "they're a whole state so it's different to …project savings on a county level."
Marshall Spatz, the budget director for MCPS, said the system is already installing solar panels in some schools through the Capital Budget. He said he "would certainly encourage [the students]," but committing to their grid neutrality requests would require extensive analysis.
"I'm just not sure about how that works, what it amounts to," Spatz said.
Schwartzman said after the board meeting, which was attended by about 15 MCSEA members, the group got no official commitment but felt the reaction was "positive."
"Most of the board members reacted saying they wanted to work with us," and encouraged the group to attend a meeting on Feb. 19 which will focus on energy policy.
Schwartzman said the board did say there might be other priorities before making the school system grid neutral. "We might disagree on those points," he said, but he's optimistic "in the coming months there's a good possibility there will be a commitment."