Senith Berhane, an eleventh-grade student at Riverside High School, in Durham, says she became interested in environmental issues after viewing An Inconvenient Truth a few years ago.
“I legitimately could not sleep at night,” Berhane tells the INDY. “I realized, around the world and within my community, how rapid and extensive climate change was negatively impacting the environment. And I knew I needed to be a part of the change.”
Riverside’s engineering department coordinator told Berhane about the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE), an organization that educates youth about climate change and gives them opportunities to take action to slow it. Berhane applied for a fellowship at the North Carolina chapter and was accepted in July. She says there are seventeen or so students in North Carolina involved in ACE, including another Riverside student, Nekesa Schutte. They all meet once a week in Raleigh, at the Wade Edwards Foundation and Learning Lab.
“We discuss current environmental news and climate issues, or else we work with climate-oriented organizations to raise awareness on climate change,” Berhane says.
To that end, Berhane and others in ACE have been compiling letters asking Durham Public Schools to prioritize renewable energy in the district. (Berhane has been in the DPS system since kindergarten.) At a Board of Education meeting on Monday afternoon, Berhane dropped off twenty-four letters from PTA presidents, school principals, community members, and students in Berhane’s AP environmental science class. Berhane also addressed the school board.
“By adopting renewable energy for all schools, you are continuing district wide cost-saving efforts like energy efficiency,” she said. “Reports estimate DPS can cut 25 percent of our energy usage. That money can go to improving buildings, adding more magnet programs, overall positively affect Durham Public Schools as a whole. Not only can we try to correct existing buildings, we need to ensure all new construction & renovations are net-zero. Net-zero means that the buildings use as much energy as they produce with on-site solar.”
The report Berhane cited is from the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center at N.C. State University. Among other things, it found that DPS could save millions and meet 100 percent of its electricity needs over the next twenty-five years if it installed solar panels immediately. Additionally, continual improvements in energy efficiency in the schools—via things like net-zero new construction and LED light bulbs—could quickly shave about $1.5 million off DPS’s current annual $5.7 million electricity bill. That’s not an insignificant sum, given that the school board is trying to figure out how to deal with a $15 million shortfall. A bond proposal currently being shaped—it’s at $186 million right now—could also help achieve some sustainability goals. If approved by the Durham County Board of Commissioners, it would go on the November ballot.
“We are all counting on you,” Berhane said. When she was done, the board applauded. Berhane couldn’t stick around for the bond discussion—she had a soccer game to get to. Riverside won, 3-1.