LEED Schools ≠ “Green”: How LEED Certification Drives Up Costs, Fails to Deliver Energy Efficiency

gbs020816f/ASEC -- A new school building is being constructed at West Mesa High School on Monday, February 8, 2016. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE — Tax-free shopping for “back to school” is getting under way and both students and teachers can see summers’ end from here.

But what kind of schools will those students head back to? New Mexico Executive Order 2006-

001, signed by Governor Bill Richardson, requires public buildings over 15,000 square feet in size to receive Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

The executive order claims LEED standards deliver “utility bill savings,” arguing “emphasis should be placed on the ‘life cycle costs’ of a public building rather than solely on its initial capital costs.” Is this true or is LEED a costly use of scarce school construction resources for little or no energy savings?

The Rio Grande Foundation’s Todd Myers answers that question in his new policy brief, “New Mexico’s LEED Standards for School Construction: Not Green, not Cost-effective,” which provides detailed analysis of school energy consumption in both the Albuquerque and Santa Fe school districts.

Myers argues that LEED’s energy savings must be substantial in order to make up for added costs. After looking at schools across the country, he argues, “LEED Gold – the second – highest rating – costs about 10 percent more in construction costs than traditional schools.

He cites Santa Fe as a model, noting that “they have built extremely efficient schools without the ‘green’ certification.”

Albuquerque’s Public Schools’ experience is more typical with 2015 showing that “when compared to other elementary schools in Albuquerque, green elementary schools on average are slightly more energy efficient but are unlikely to save enough money over the lifespan of the buildings to make the ‘green’ investments and certification worthwhile.”

The experience of schools across the country demonstrates that district facilities directors are often adept at finding cost-effective ways to reduce energy use, based on the particular buildings they manage. Requiring them to meet a formulaic, one-size-fits-all “green” approach, however, often leads them in the wrong direction, by increasing costs without returning savings.

“Ultimately,” Myers concludes, “for taxpayers, students and the environment – the real-world data shows that New Mexico’s green schools fall well short of their energy-saving promises.”

“Efficiency is about more than a press release and a plaque on the wall.”