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Kevin Shen, a senior at Irvington High School in Fremont, just released the first version of "SchoolNeutral," a carbon emissions calculator he designed to help fellow students learn about their school's energy use and calculate its carbon footprint.

The Excel worksheet calculator comes complete with a well-written user manual explaining how the calculator works and what information students need to collect. As Kevin writes in the manual: "With this information at hand, you can begin to take action at your school to reduce energy consumption and raise money to purchase carbon offsets for emissions that your school is not able to reduce." (SchoolNeutral download links are at this webpage.)

A high school campus is a large complex. Depending on various factors such as age, design, amount of retrofitting, and use habits, a school’s carbon footprint could be big. Reducing energy use by schools not only cuts emissions but can also save money -- something schools greatly need. In fact, according to the California Energy Commission, "most schools spend more money on energy each year than on school supplies." In California, the Energy Commission and PG&E both provide incentives and assessment programs for California K-12 schools to reduce energy consumption.

An intern at Bay Area's EarthTeam, Kevin Shen developed the calculator in partnership with the San Francisco-based DriveNeutral, a non-profit that makes it easy for individuals to purchase Chicago Climate Exchange carbon credits.

According to EarthTeam, the calculator was designed for students in EarthTeam's Student Global Warming Campaign to calculate their schools' carbon footprint. The assessment would then be used as the basis for raising money to purchase carbon credits via DriveNeutral.

SchoolNeutral requires basic information about the school (number of days in school year, number students attending school), as well as more complex figures such as the school's yearly use of electricity and gas, a breakdown of how people travel to and from school, and information about waste disposal and mitigation actions like recycling.

The user manual explains how to collect data, why each piece of data is relevant, the definitions of terms like "MWh" (from manual: "mega-watt hours, a unit of energy"), references, and how a carbon offset works.

Kevin drew inspiration from DriveNeutral and Clean Air - Cool Planet. (Clean Air – Cool Planet is also a partner of Campus Climate Challenge.) He explained his design considerations to me by email:

"One inspiration was the Clean Air-Cool Planet calculator, which is used at college campuses on the Northeast. Since DriveNeutral's own carbon calculator requires input only in terms of volume of fuel consumed, I looked to the Clean Air - Cool Planet to see how they translated other information, like student population, transportation habits, etc. into the raw input that could be used with the DriveNeutral calculator. I also looked to the Clean Air - Cool Planet calculator for some emissions factors that I could neither find online nor in the DriveNeutral calculator. I included these additional emissions factors on the DriveNeutral 'Calculator.'"

The SchoolNeutral Excel file also includes an easy to use transportation survey and DriveNeutral's own calculator. After playing around with the calculator, I began to sense how huge the transportation impact is. SchoolNeutral makes this apparent by breaking down how much a carbon offset would cost, and showing both the prices for total emissions and total emissions minus transportation.

I tested the calculator using a hypothetical suburban 40,000 square-foot, one-story school of 1500 students. At this school 75% of students drive or are driven and 15% take the bus, students produce yearly 150,000 pounds of waste of which 22,500 pounds are recycled, and the facilty uses 254.359 MWh electricity and 29301 therms gas for heating, cooling, cooking, lighting, and electronics.

Using SchoolNeutral, my results were: total CO2: 2,931,727.42 lbs; total CO2 without transport impact: 682,059.30 lbs; total offset cost: $10,993.98; and cost without transport impact: $2,557.72. The net cost of an offset with transportation impacts included comes to a little over four times the cost of an offset without it! (All the more relevant DriveNeutral.)

(Notes on my calculation: I used PG&E energy tools to calculate the relationship of square-footage to energy consumed and give me rough electricity and gas estimates. Other assumptions I used with PG&E energy tools: the facility is between 30-50 years old, all buildings use HVAC, each student produces an average of 100 lbs of total waste per year and recycles 15 lbs of it. I also added about a 75% increase in electricity consumption to account for electronics and computers; I’m unsure about the accuracy of energy use by electronics. Some schools have only a few computers, while others have over a hundred. If there are errors or if someone can provide data giving more accurate estimates, please share.)

What makes the SchoolNeutral calculator stand out is that it has been designed to help high school students calculate emissions generated by a large group of people (the first version focuses just on student population) who work together at a large complex (the high school). Most carbon calculators focus on the individual or household carbon footprint, but SchoolNeutral shows how to calculate much larger, collective footprints.

SchoolNeutral is customizable, pretty easy to decipher, and teaches the causes of carbon emissions. I can see the tool being useful for other institutions and large populations, whether it is a business, shopping mall, college campus, or government agency. Plus, as a tool asking students to learn more about their school’s campus and facilities, the calculator may help those students who use it become active stewards of their daily surroundings. It'll be interesting to see how SchoolNeutral develops and is used. Great work, Kevin!

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