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Activism: BRIAN STASZENSKI; Valuable Lesson

3 minute read
Mark Hertsgaard

Brian Staszenski, a 48-year-old bear of a man brimming with can-do enthusiasm, will try almost anything to help push humanity toward a greener future. As executive director of the Tomorrow Foundation in Edmonton, Alberta, this veteran Canadian environmentalist has used tactics ranging from the respectable (serving on government commissions and collaborating with corporations) to the militant (financing nonviolent civil-disobedience training for Alberta activists). “People say I push the envelope, but we’re in a crisis situation,” says Staszenski.

His most far-reaching initiative, though, is radical in the best sense of the word. It’s Destination Conservation, a project that has directed environmental retrofits at some 2,700 schools across Canada and is branching out this fall to the U.S. A school board’s dream, these retrofits dramatically lower utility bills–and thus expand education budgets–even as they create healthier, greener classrooms.

Because schools, like most of us, routinely waste so many natural resources, the economics of improving efficiency are undeniable. “You can reduce most schools’ utility bills by 30% with your eyes closed, 50% if you push it,” says Staszenski. The savings can be plowed back into the school system–perhaps to hire more teachers or buy more books.

Each retrofit starts with an audit. Teachers and pupils are taught to measure how much energy and water are consumed at their school and how much solid waste is produced. Through classroom guides and training sessions, Destination Conservation staff members then identify behavioral changes that kids and teachers can make–turning off lights after use, recycling cafeteria plates–to cut waste. The kids monitor the effects; typically, utility bills fall 6% to 7%.

The big savings come in year two, when an energy-services company, partnering with Destination Conservation, implements a technical retrofit: installing superefficient light bulbs, low-flow showerheads and the like. The retrofitter guarantees that the school will enjoy substantially lower–usually between 20% and 30%–utility bills. If not, the retrofitter must pay the difference.

“These projects will fund a positive cash flow for schools,” says David Theriault, manager of national institutional accounts at PG&E Energy Services in California, Staszenski’s partner in a proposed retrofit of San Francisco’s public schools. A recent PG&E retrofit of 25 schools in San Jose is expected to generate a $581,194 return over 15 years, says Theriault. The school district is using the money for asbestos abatement.

Equally valuable are the environmental- education benefits, says Staszenski. “If all the thousands of kids we’re working with leave school knowing that efficiency makes both economic and environmental sense, they’ll not only change their parents’ behavior at home, they won’t need to be educated to do the right thing once they’re out in the work force themselves.”

If homes, businesses and public buildings around the world all achieved the 30% cuts that a Destination Conservation retrofit gives schools, society would be halfway to the 50% to 70% reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions needed to avoid severe global warming. Thus the retrofits send a message to adults, says Staszenski: “If kids can do it, what’s your problem?”

–By Mark Hertsgaard

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