By JohnCarl McGrady

The Nantucket Public School system (NPS) has made several major changes that will reduce its carbon emissions by over 503,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year in the previous few years, a huge reduction, but the district remains far from net-zero and does not seem likely to reach this milestone within the next few decades. Nantucket has also balked at certain proposals, such as solar panels on the roofs of school buildings, that, while they would greatly decrease emissions, the administration argues might also prove to be safety risks, or overly expensive.

On April 22nd, 2020, Charlie Baker’s government signed a letter of determination saying that by 2050, Massachusetts as a state would not emit more carbon than it removed from the atmosphere, a move that, while criticized by some as not extensive enough, was roundly viewed as a lofty goal requiring a major overhaul to state policy and departments. While Baker’s government may be confident that Massachusetts can reach net-zero by 2050, administrators at Nantucket High School (NHS) aren’t as optimistic about their own efforts. 

“Net zero emissions is a very aggressive and expensive endeavor,” explained facilities director Diane O’Neil. “I’m not sure if this can be accomplished in the foreseeable future.”

“It’s really aggressive,” superintendent Elizabeth Hallett agreed. “I say never say never, but if we don’t get there, we will keep going…we have to consider all of the elements that come into play…we have to be careful not to rush in.” 

NPS has greatly reduced its carbon footprint in recent years. Since 2015, the school has cut its carbon footprint by over 503,000lbs of CO2 per year, according to its own data. To put that number in context, the average American emits around 54,000lbs of CO2 a year, meaning the district has shaved the equivalent of roughly nine people of its total. 

With the exception of the replacement of lighting replacements in the NHS library, which will take a little over 11 years to pay for itself, all of these projects will pay for themselves in less than 10 years, and over half of them will be netting an increase in income for the school within four years. NHS has also replaced its boiler, as well as many windows in the building, and upgraded the bathrooms, all reducing the school’s carbon footprint. 

Another element of the school’s efforts to reduce their carbon footprint that administrators emphasized was recycling. “We are very careful with our recycling efforts,” O’Neil said. “[There are] new recycl[ing] bins inside and outside of each school, on all playgrounds and we’ve just ordered more to place on all playing fields.”

However, while the bins are present, there is debate over how effectively the school system actually recycles. “A lot of the time, people just don’t recycle,” said high school senior Brian Nolasco Ramirez.

“I would describe myself as one of those teachers who is very diligent about managing the recycling and the trash,” high school environmental science teacher and Conservation Committee chair Ashley Erisman explained, “and still, trash gets in my recycling, even when I’m teaching about it.” According to waste-management solutions company Rubicon, it is possible that this cross-contamination could ultimately lead to a lot of the school’s recycling simply being disposed of with the trash.

Hallett suggested that this could be a visibility problem, and “if you only see it in the corner of the cafeteria, that might not be the best place for it…I can see directing people, reminding people, you need to [recycle].”

Erisman added that “ultimately, change sometimes comes from pressure from your peers.”

Perhaps the most contentious issue related to the school’s push for net-zero is solar power. According to Town data, the school system is the single biggest energy consumer on the island, which has led all parties involved to seriously look into the possibility of solar panels on NPS buildings.

While NPS investigated the possibility of putting solar on the roof of the Nantucket Intermediate School when it was first being built, O’Neil explains that “the solar panels…were  not approved by [the Historic District Commission] and were also found to be not cost-effective.  The cost for the solar panels and installation on only the south side of the four roofs were going to cost over $660,000. The expected life span of these panels was 20 years. In order to achieve that amount of savings in electricity costs to even meet the cost of installation, based on the expected usage of the building, exceeded 23 years.”

NPS administrators have steadfastly maintained that they don’t think it is worth it to pursue sustainability projects that won’t save them money, regardless of the carbon reduction, with Hallett asserting “the research we have done with other school districts that have put up solar panels, it hasn’t been cost-saving, and that’s the other piece, too, it has to be cost-saving…if you’re spending as much or more with solar panels, then there is no advantage.”

O’Neil agreed that “changing to a different way of doing things costs money and takes a lot of time and there isn’t always enough of a payback in savings to make it worth the district’s while to move forward with the project.”

Last year, another opportunity presented itself when the Town put out a bid to equip some Town buildings with solar panels. One of the bidders, Ameresco, offered a plan that would have put solar on NPS roofs. O’Neil explains that “we offered two roofs at NES that are new enough to sustain putting solar panels on,” but “when the Town bid went out we found that all of our roofs on all of our buildings were offered in the bid without any discussions with us and without our approval. This created a potential difficult situation for us. We cannot allow solar panels on older roofs.”

However, Ameresco employee Ryan Fahey, who was involved with the project, tells a different story. He claims that “any time we are installing solar on a building, we have a structural engineer evaluate the roof’s ability to support the added weight of a solar array. That analysis also includes things like the weight…with snow. If there are sections of the roof that cannot support solar, we either avoid those sections or reinforce them such that they can support the additional weight. We have never had a roof collapse.”

Arguments over potential roof collapses took center-stage in the debate over solar, with Hallett arguing “in some cases, the roofs themselves cannot hold the weight of the solar panels and they collapse…the research has been done, it has been very specific to this, it has been investigated to see whether or not this would be possible.” 

This research has not been made publicly available at this time, and one anonymous source involved in the bid called the administration’s claims “absurd,” and said, “nothing like what they are suggesting has ever happened.”

Both Hallet and O’Neil also cited cost concerns with the bid, Hallett saying “there’s no question [NPS] supports alternative energy, but it…would have to be something where there wouldn’t be an added cost.”

Fahey, however, dismissed those concerns and said “because of the tax credits available for solar, a private entity owns the solar…so we own the project, the Town pays nothing upfront. And the Town pays less for the energy from solar that they would pay the utility for electricity. This creates a net savings to the Town.”

With views so divided, the Town eventually chose a different bid, and the school did not receive solar. Hallett is open to potentially putting solar panels on NPS property in the future, but only if it is safe and cost-effective.

Recently, students have begun to push for sustainability at the high school, and the Nantucket community as a whole, on a much more high-profile level than they ever have in the past. Last year, in concert with the international climate strikes around the world, timed to coincide with the United Nations climate summit in New York City, students at NHS organized a school strike for the climate that drew over 100 participants to the courthouse downtown. 

Another student-led effort is the Youth Climate Committee (YCC), of which Ramirez is a founding member. Late this September, the YCC organized a talk on how NPS could reduce carbon emissions and approach net-zero. While Hallett and NHS principal Mandy Vasil were originally slated to attend the talk, both pulled out after later scheduling a conference on the school’s reopening attempts for the same time-slot. The day after the conference, reopening was delayed another week. O’Neil and NHS food services director Linda Peterson were also asked to attend but were not able to due to scheduling conflicts.

The YCC plans to push for further carbon reduction efforts at the school and believes that the potential expenses are worth it to reduce the school’s carbon footprint. The committee is planning a series of conferences and events for the week of Earth Day this coming April, which will address topics such as solar power at NPS and what individuals can do in their own lives to reduce carbon emissions, and committee members have expressed hope that this time administrators will be able to attend.

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