PORTLAND — High school students are taking the lead in several initiatives designed to reduce the carbon footprint of the city’s schools, while also taking steps to combat climate change.

At its Feb. 5 meeting the School Board heard two presentations from students.

One was from the Green Team at Casco Bay High School, which urged the board to support placing energy-generating solar arrays at six schools.

The other was from the Environmental Club at Portland High School, which received a $4,000 grant from ecomaine this past fall to purchase seven new hand dryers for the school’s bathrooms.

The club believes the hand dryers will significantly reduce waste at the school because students calculated that at least 1,600 paper towels a day are now being used and discarded in bathrooms alone.

Ecomaine is a municipally owned and operated waste-to-energy plant serving 73 communities in Southern Maine that also works to promote public awareness of sustainable waste management strategies, according to its website.

Bringing solar to school

Calling their effort SolaRISE Portland, the group from Casco Bay High School said their proposal could cost up to $5 million, but also said it’s time city and School Department leaders “take concrete action to negate the effects of climate change.”

The ultimate hope, the Green Team told the School Board, would be for the city’s schools to become carbon neutral by relying solely on renewable sources of energy.

Siri Pierce, a junior at Casco Bay High and a key organizer of SolaRISE Portland, said the Green Team has already met with the Sierra Club’s Climate Action Team in Maine along with ReVision Energy, which recently partnered with the city to create a 4-acre solar array on a former landfill.

ReVision Energy says the array, which consists of 2,816 solar panels, will produce 1.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year, which is enough to power City Hall and Merrill Auditorium.

In addition, Pierce said the Green Team has also met with Mayor Ethan Strimling, who has expressed support and interest in adding solar panels to the schools. In fact, the team told the School Board, the city already has committed to relying on 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2040.

Along with asking the city and the School Board to authorize a request for proposals for a solar array at CBHS, the Green Team also asked the board to revise the School Department’s energy policies to be more sustainable.

In addition, the team said the School Board, as well as individual school administrators, should encourage “concurrent efforts by students and schools to conserve energy.”

The six schools the Green Team is suggesting host solar arrays are Casco Bay High, which shares space with the Portland Arts and Technology High School, King Middle and Riverton, Ocean Avenue and Lyseth elementary schools, along with the East End Community School.

Solar panels either on the school roof or school grounds could supply as much as 79 percent of the energy used by the six schools, the Green Team said.

Along with energy production, the team said the use of solar panels could be key to the creation of new science curricula that would center around renewable energy as a way to address the global climate change crisis.

The Green Team then presented the School Board with a specific proposal for a ground-based solar array at Casco Bay High that could produce up to 266,205 kWh of electricity annually at a cost of $728,900.

The team said solar has “extensive environmental benefits” and placing a solar array on the ground would provide “great public exposure” and provide a way to educate the wider community on renewable energy.

The team then showed a video of students at various schools across the city all expressing support for the SolaRISE Portland proposal.

One student at King Middle said that if “we want to survive on this planet … we have to switch to renewables. Unless we do something, we will have a very different life from our parents.”

School Board member Emily Figdor called the Green Team’s effort “inspiring” adding, “(you’ve) come to us with a really good first step” and “your voices have been really powerful so far.”

But she also cautioned that “change takes a lot of work.”

Saving money, paper 

The Environmental Club at Portland High told the School Board that its new hand dryers should save $360 in paper towel expenses a month and said the seven dryers would also eliminate 720 pounds of trash per year from the school’s waste stream.

The student leaders of the club said the hand dryer initiative came from an exercise in which they discussed different ways of lessening the carbon footprint of the school and decided on a project to reduce the overall output of waste.

Installing the hand dryers, the club said, would also have “a positive cultural impact (by) spreading awareness about being environmentally friendly. We’re really excited to get the conversation going.”

The Dyson Airblade hand dryers should be installed by the end of the month and the Environmental Club will then track the impact, with the hope of replicating the project in other schools throughout the city.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

A group of students from Portland schools tours the new municipal solar array, designed to power City Hall and Merrill Auditorium.