kids in school

Four Reasons Why K-12 Schools Are Warming Up to Heat Pumps

Transitioning to modern all-electric HVAC systems in schools is a game-changer for student health and learning.

As the school year comes to a close, students are celebrating their big wins, like mastering multiplication, memorizing world capitals, and making it to summer vacation. We have one more big win to celebrate too — school leaders and policymakers have been busy learning how modern HVAC systems can transform their school buildings. Here are the top four lessons we want to pass along from our new report HVAC Choices for Student Health and Learning.

1. All Eyes Are on HVAC Systems

School leaders increasingly are facing the reality that their schools’ heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are not performing at an A+ level. Stark inequities in the condition of school facilities, three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and extreme heat closures that punctuate the beginning and end of every school year have made that clear. Research indicates that approximately 41 percent of districts need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half of their schools, representing about 36,000 schools nationwide.

The majority of schools today are operating with what we are calling “legacy” HVAC systems. These systems combust fossil fuels (e.g., gas, oil, or propane), undermining indoor and outdoor air quality, the health of school-aged children, and our climate. Plus, they often do not provide sufficient cooling, ventilation, and/or filtration.

School leaders are well aware that they need to invest in improving HVAC systems and want to make informed decisions that will support current and future generations of students.

2. It’s Time to Switch to All-Electric, High-Performance HVAC Systems

Schools need modern HVAC systems that heat and cool spaces reliably and efficiently, achieve ventilation goals cost-effectively, promote healthy indoor and outdoor air, and comply with the evolving regulatory environment. It’s a tall order, but the good news is a solution already exists.

Although it is not a one-size-fits-all solution — because US schools span many climate zones and were built over many decades — there are three main ingredients that should guide school leaders in the right direction: 1) all-electric heating/cooling, 2) high-performance ventilation, and 3) high-performance filtration. For most schools across the country, some form of a heat pump is a centerpiece. The graphic below illustrates two possible HVAC configurations.

Photo courtesy of RMI and UndauntedK12.

There are six big benefits to selecting all-electric, high-performance HVAC systems:

  1. Schools receive heat pumps, a two-for-one clean heating and cooling solution, to adapt to new cooling needs and protect students from extreme temperatures.
  2. Heat pumps are not only combustion-free, but they also better support advanced ventilation and filtration, improving air quality inside classrooms and for the broader community.
  3. Energy efficiency is a hallmark of modern HVAC systems, with heat pumps up to six times as efficient as new fuel-burning heat systems. This can yield significant operating budget savings.
  4. Without gas, heat pumps foster safer learning environments by minimizing health and safety concerns like gas leaks, explosions, and carbon monoxide poisoning.
  5. Pairing modern HVAC systems with weatherization, renewables, and battery storage can boost school and community resilience to extreme temperatures, storms, and power outages.
  6. As schools nationwide respond to top-down policies and grassroots advocacy to take climate action, modern HVAC systems position schools as climate mitigation champions.

Photo courtesy of RMI and UndauntedK12.

3. Leading States, Cities, and Districts Are Taking Action

This transition is already underway and school leaders are increasingly adopting all-electric, high-performance HVAC systems. This is true of new schools under construction and existing schools undergoing renovations.

Just a few examples show that the K-12 sector is hard at work:

  • Schools in states across the country — such as Connecticut and Wisconsin — have already installed geothermal heat pumps. Districts like Denver Public Schools and Portland Public Schools, among many others, have voiced commitments to significantly decarbonize heating in upcoming years.
  • In jurisdictions where all-electric new schools will be constructed, programs can help fill gaps for existing schools. For example, NYC’s Leading the Charge is a $4 billion plan to electrify 100 existing schools to all-electric heating by 2030.
  • State programs can also expedite action. In response to $8 million in funding from the governor, Efficiency Maine is collaborating with HVAC contractors to deliver heat pump retrofits to rural and aging schools. On the other side of the country, the California Energy Commission has proposed that CalSHAPE’s grants are only used to install zero-emissions equipment, making gas equipment replacement ineligible.

This is a job for all of us. Superintendents, school board members, policymakers, students, teachers, and parents each can play a role. It starts with developing our understanding of how HVAC choices affect student health and learning, which then guides resource allocation, development and pursuit of funding opportunities, and advancement of supportive policy at all levels.

4. New Federal Funding Changes the Game

New funding sources, notably the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, President Biden’s signature climate law, gives school leaders a generational opportunity to invest in modern HVAC systems. Between the Investment Tax Credit, direct pay, domestic content requirements, and energy community designation, the noncompetitive incentives effectively reduce the up-front cost of geothermal heat pumps by up to 50 percent over the next decade. This is a remarkable chance to ease the “first cost” barrier many schools face.

Elsewhere in the federal government, other sources of funding have popped up in recent years, including the US Department of Education’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds and the US Department of Energy’s Grants for Energy Improvements at Public School Facilities. This federal funding may be combined with additional support from states, utilities, and private sector partners.

Want to Learn More?

You can find RMI and UndauntedK12’s full report, research briefs, and webinar online. For additional resources about healthy decarbonized K-12 schools, check out Getting to Zero, UndauntedK12, Efficient and Healthy Schools Campaign, This Is Planet Ed, Center for Green Schools, and ASHRAE.