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Global Ideas

Students preach renewable energy, get politics lesson

In the sun-drenched state of Nevada, students passionate about the environment are fighting for solar and other green energy at their school in the face of big opposition.

Southern Nevada is hot and sunny most of the year. It's a desert, so it's expected. But students in the Sierra Vista High School environmental club in the southeast part of Clark County - just a few miles from the garish lights of the Las Vegas Strip - tell me they've noticed it getting hotter over their short lifetimes.

Our warming world, they say, is one reason they've been spreading the word about renewable energy as an alternative to climate-destroying fossil fuels to the county's school board, to politicians, to their peers and even to elementary school students.
They've launched a school-wide recycling program, an organic garden, and an outreach to teach younger kids about renewable energy.

"We were trying to teach them how to save energy," says Jesse Yun, a 2016 graduate and former club member. "We want to plant the seed in an innovative young generation who could make more societal change than we are now."

A bright idea

I met with a few students in the 60-member club last spring, just after they scored a big victory in getting the lights at their high school replaced with energy-saving light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Photos: A boy and other students planting an organic garden

The students at Sierra Vista High School get their hands dirty in their organic garden

Over the past year they had several meetings with LED vendors and with help from their advisor and environmental science teacher, Arlene Kam, and Sierra Vista's principal, John Anzalone, walked the school board through their proposal, a proposal that included a detailed energy audit and projected savings. The students also made the case for environmental benefits of LEDs. Their passion brought one board member to tears, according to Kam.

"I think the school board is so behind this effort because it wasn't coming from a teacher or administrator, but from the kids," Kam says.

In the students' proposal the LED vendor pays upfront for the lights and installation. The amount Sierra Vista saves on energy over 3.8 years will pay for the lamps, students calculated. After 3.8 years, Sierra Vista will own the lamps and reap significant savings that could go directly into books or even hiring new staff.

"Our lighting bill right now per month is $10,500 (9,555 euros)," Anzalone says. "The students showed that LED would knock our bill down by $7,000 (6,370 euros) and that savings would go back into our school budget. In a time we're facing severe budget cuts, (LEDs) would be instrumental in helping the school."

There are 357 existing schools in the Clark County school district, the fifth largest school district in the country. Sierra Vista will be the first large school the county to complete such a conversion. The switch over to LEDs has already started and should be complete early in the upcoming school year.

Still, despite the success with LEDs, the students ran into a huge roadblock in their other big goal: making their school go solar.

Political science meets environmental science

"It was a big dream of Ms Kam for solar panels to be installed in our high school," says club member Luwam Hailu. "We said, ‘why not try to make it happen?'"
Despite their best efforts at petitioning the school board over the past school year, the environmental club found out that when and if Sierra Vista goes solar, it would be long after their graduation. Students gave a presentation showing long-term cost savings of nearly 200,000 a year after the first nine years, as well as environmental benefits. This time, Clark County school board members were not moved. They deemed solar panels "not cost effective" for Sierra Vista, even though a few elementary schools in the county have solar panels.

Students sitting around a table in a classroom

Sierra Vista environmental club members teaching elementary school students about renewable energy. They hope to 'plant the seed' of innovation in the minds of the next generation

The most passionate advocates of solar at Sierra Vista graduated in June, and they told me they weren’t sure whether the remaining members of the club would continue to push for solar at the school.

The determination mystified club members. They say the real reason for denying Sierra Vista the solar panels is political. Their advisor, Kam, put it in stark terms: "Nevada Energy is a utility monopoly and they don't want people in the state to have solar."

Justine Frias, a 2016 graduate and the former environmental club president, agrees, and points to the cryptic aftermath of a speech she gave to the Las Vegas City Council in May.

Frias was invited to explain the club's mission of fighting for a cleaner world and how solar was a big part of that. It was recorded and that video is on the city government's website, except for one part: five minutes of Frias explaining how $13 million in subsidies the federal government gives to Nevada Energy has helped to quash the solar energy industry in southern Nevada.

Students hold up pro-environment signs at a school-board meeting

Environmental club members hold signs calling for solar energy at a school board meeting

"(The city) erased that part," Frias says. "I showed that Nevada Energy wants to stop solar in the state, but I think the city thought it was too politically risky. Which kind of proved my point."

Frias' assertions were based on detailed reporting. For more than a year Nevada solar customers have been in a fight with the state's Public Utility Commission, which in 2015 ended the policy of net metering, or a kilowatt-hour-to-kilowatt-hour exchange with residential solar users. That has made it much less cost effective to use solar panels, and has killed a #link:http://www.marketplace.org/2016/02/23/world/nevada-solar:thriving solar energy industry.#

A life lesson

Anzalone was pulling for the board to approve solar panels too. But he believes that all was not lost. By going for broke with environmental outreach, Sierra Vista's environmental club members gained an education in science, in economics and in real world politics, he says.

"These kids have shown more patience than most adults I know. They learned with a district this size, with so much red tape, to take setbacks in their stride. Educationally, politically, and scientifically, they've learned a lot."

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