Electrifying Education in Austin

March 23, 2022

Picture this. At a school parking lot in Austin, Texas, high school students gather in front of an electric car with its hood popped open. When they look inside, “kids see what’s not in there,” Amy Atchley said. “There’s hardly anything in there but a battery. And that’s super exciting.”

This is a scene that Atchley has seen countless times since 2018 and it never gets old. “Seeing them light up is everything,” she said. 

As Austin Energy’s senior lead of its electric vehicle energy program, Atchley created a pilot program called EVs for Schools through a public-private partnership with Austin Independent School District. 

Charging stations at some schools are known as “Living Labs,” because students collect data from the charging stations and measure usage. They learn about the role electric vehicles play in clean energy and sustainable transportation.

Students interacting with EV chargers

The program started out in 2018 as a pilot at four Title I schools: three high schools and one middle school. Title I schools have high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families. They receive federal grants to help ensure that all children, regardless of household incomes, meet state academic standards.

“We wanted to start with schools that would not typically have these resources,” Atchley said. 

The utility company also wanted to start the program with schools that had at least some employees who drive EVs. 

“We wanted that championship in the school community,” Atchley said. “We thought that might be a challenge. But we found that a lot of our teachers were driving used EVs, and were totally excited to have workplace charging.” 

One of those champions is Ed Hill, a faculty member in the technology department at AISD who owns a plug-in hybrid. He takes advantage of charging stations at schools because he travels throughout the school district for work. 

EV and plug-in hybrid drivers can pay about $4 a month for any charging station in the Austin Energy charging network, including charging stations in the school district. 

“We have businesses and companies making sustainable changes,” Hill said. “Even without being mandated.” 

Not every school that teaches the curriculum has charging stations. But the school district renovated many of its school parking lots to be ready for charging stations to be installed in the future. Newly built schools are also EV-ready. A 2017 voter-approved education bond to create 21st-century learning spaces in the school district made this parking lot remodel project possible. 

Reaching the next generation where they are

EV for Schools expanded to serve 122 schools in Central Texas with curriculum offered in both English and Spanish.

“I knew that if we could reach young people, we would be able to reach their parents,” Atchley said. “And we also know that… young people really understand that climate impact is going to be one of the greatest challenges of their generation. And they are on board with this [technology]. They really want to be a part of the solution.”

The curriculum, with 10 lesson plans, is designed to meet the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards, while influencing generations of future drivers to make sustainable choices.

Amy Atchley (center) and students in front of a model of a wind farm

One way kids learn about EVs is through virtual reality. “They put on the goggles and they go into this virtual world,” Atchley said. 

That virtual world is actually right in their backyard. Downtown Austin has a mobility hub called “Electric Drive,” which features bike-share and EV fast charging options. The hub is outfitted with fast chargers for EVs and solar kiosks where people charge their e-bikes, cell phones, and computers. 

Students get to drive through Electric Drive in a Tesla through this virtual reality activity. They also get to visit a virtual wind farm where they learn that Austin’s network of charging stations is fully powered by Texas wind. 

“They embrace it and they love it,” Atchley said. “So this is reaching kids where they are and where they’re going. It also makes them realize this is happening now. It’s something that they have access to and kind of helps to normalize this shift of behavior and new mobility.”


It’s no surprise that EVs for Schools started out with a strong focus on equity, because its parent program, EVs are for EVeryone, is also equity-focused. Austin Energy created EVs for EVeryone and E-Bikes are for Everyone to make electric vehicles and e-bike sharing programs affordable and accessible to people who earn low to moderate incomes. 

“Transportation is the number two household expense in Austin [for families in extreme poverty],” Atchley said. “That’s heavy. It’s right behind housing. So housing and transportation are intrinsically connected.”

Often programs that promote electric vehicles, solar panels or energy efficiency are unaffordable to people with low to moderate incomes. And yet they spend the most money on energy – both to fuel their cars, and heat and cool their homes. People of color also breathe more particulate air pollution on average.

To address these inequities, The City of Austin launched a climate equity plan with ambitious goals: net zero emissions in Austin by 2040. “And in terms of transportation, that means by 2030, we need to have 40% of those miles traveled on the road [to be] electric,” Atchley said.

Austin Energy’s programs raise awareness and improve access to electric transportation by offering everything from test drives on both EVs and e-bikes, to training programs on how to use them, to subsidies to make ride-sharing programs affordable. And the utility company in collaboration with partners is bringing some of these ebike- and ride-sharing programs to affordable housing.

“When communities see electric bikes or electric vehicles coming to their neighborhoods, the first thing that signals [to them] is gentrification,” Atchley said. “So we’re trying to break that barrier down. We want residents to realize: this is for you.”

EVs for Schools also sends that message to kids and teenagers by leveraging education to raise awareness about clean and renewable energy technology. It’s a powerful way to inspire young people to consider careers in clean energy.

“We know we weren’t reaching any students [before EVs for Schools],” Atchley said. “We know that [these days] we’re reaching nearly 7,000 students with the educational Living Labs in the Austin area. And nearly 800 teachers have gone through the training so that they can teach the curriculum to their students.” 

Austin Energy is working with other cities, utility companies and even some school districts to help them create their own EVs for Schools programs. A clean energy future looks bright in Texas as EVs for Schools continues to grow not only its program, but its influence around the state.


Generation180 and FedEx team up to help more schools access the financial, educational and climate benefits of solar

March 22, 2022

Photo Credit: FedEx Ground

Solar For All Schools program expands nationally, launches in Pennsylvania

Charlottesville, VA —Generation180 and FedEx have teamed up to launch a new collaboration that will enable more U.S. schools to obtain solar power and benefit from cost savings, educational opportunities, and climate protection.

With support from FedEx, clean energy nonprofit Generation180 will expand its national Solar for All Schools program and the impact that K-12 schools can have in mitigating climate change and advancing clean energy adoption nationwide. The program will also expand into Pennsylvania, where FedEx Ground is headquartered.

FedEx has an ambitious goal to achieve carbon-neutral operations globally by 2040. One component of that goal is renewable energy procurement for its facilities. FedEx will draw from its own experiences with renewable energy at its facilities and apply those learnings for school staff and facilities eager to make the same transition.

“Generation180 and FedEx share a vision for inspiring others to act more sustainably, and this momentous opportunity will enable us to significantly expand climate action at the community level by leading with our schools, students, and families. This exciting partnership will help spur on the growing movement of schools across the country making the switch to clean energy,” said Tish Tablan, Director of Generation180’s Solar for All Schools Program.

“Collaborating with Generation180 and other community organizations can help increase momentum towards a renewable and regenerative future for schools across the country.”
— Mitch Jackson, Chief Sustainability Officer at FedEx

“We know sustainability is a team sport,” said Mitch Jackson, Chief Sustainability Officer at FedEx. “Part of our role on the team is to drive innovation and share our knowledge and experiences. With 26 facilities generating on- and off-site solar energy, we can offer key insights on the transition to renewable energy. Collaborating with Generation180 and other community organizations can help increase momentum towards a renewable and regenerative future, in this case, for schools across the country.”

Switching to renewable energy sources offers big economic, educational, environmental, and community benefits. Generation180 research has found that switching to solar power has saved school districts millions of dollars on reduced energy costs, and cash-strapped schools have reinvested these savings into teacher raises and essential supplies. Schools are using solar projects to provide hands-on STEM learning, prepare students for future clean energy jobs, and teach sustainability. This switch to solar at schools significantly reduces carbon emissions and creates community anchors for climate education, awareness, and action.

Solar on U.S. K-12 schools more than doubled between 2014-2019, yet less than six percent of all schools were using solar power, according to Generation180 research. With support from FedEx among others, Generation180 aims to help double the amount of solar at K-12 schools nationally again by the end of 2024. The organization will continue tracking the progress of this movement and publish new research on solar adoption Pennsylvania schools this spring and an update on national trends in the fall of 2022.

Generation180 is planning a first-ever national clean energy schools symposium that will convene education, business, and sustainability leaders to focus on the transition of our country’s schools towards our clean energy future.

In addition, Generation180 is launching a new campaign to advance solar adoption by K-12 schools in Pennsylvania, particularly in the most under-resourced and disadvantaged communities, by providing information and technical assistance to school district staff and advocacy support to student and community advocates.

To learn more about the many benefits of solar and begin exploring your school’s solar energy options, visit Generation180’s Solar for All Schools page.

About Generation180

Generation180 is a national nonprofit working to inspire and equip people to take action on clean energy in their homes, schools, and communities. Instead of the doom and gloom of a warming planet, Generation180 is focused on the unparalleled opportunity and the cleaner, healthier, more equitable energy future before us.

Our Solar for All Schools (SFAS) campaign is leading a movement nationwide to help K-12 schools reduce energy costs, enhance student learning, and foster healthier communities for all. SFAS is expanding access to solar by providing resources and support to school decision-makers and community advocates, building peer-to-peer networks, and advocating for stronger solar policies.


Driving an EV can mean driving with your values

March 16, 2022

Chevy Pham weaved in and out of crowds with her family as they walked through a festival in Bend, Oregon, in 2012. A small, futuristic-looking car parked amid vendor and sponsor tables caught her attention. “What is that?” she thought. It was a Leaf, Nissan’s relatively new at the time all-electric vehicle. A Nissan representative showcasing the car waved her over. “I thought it was a toy car,” Pham said. “I had never heard of an electric vehicle before.” The fact that the car didn’t have a gas tank amazed Pham. At the end of the day, she put the EV in the back of her mind. 

For the next year, each time she started her engine, drove in stop-and-go traffic, or idled at intersections waiting for freight trains to pass, Pham continued to feel the weight she’s always felt about her carbon footprint. “I was putting out a lot of fumes and it just didn’t feel right,” she said.

Pham is a Buddhist meditator. Her belief in karma and rebirth, and deep care for this planet and the people on it, motivated her family to get solar panels back in 2009. She became an early adopter of solar because she recognized that conscious individual choices can help slow the Earth’s average warming temperatures—and have a positive ripple effect on those around her. And that’s what motivated her to be an early adopter of an electric vehicle, too.

Chevy Pham and her blue Nissan Leaf in the background.

Pham believes it’s her responsibility as a future elder in her family to create conditions in the present day that will allow her children, her grandchildren, and perhaps even herself to flourish in the future. “If I am lucky, I’ll be reborn as a human being again in a subsequent life… and I will be inheriting a polluted Earth [if we don’t do anything about climate change],” Pham said. “So it’s in my best interest to take care of this Earth, because I may suffer under those [degraded] conditions.” 

Reading an article about EVs took her back to the festival where she first saw a Nissan Leaf. “I just drive around town,” Pham said. “I don’t need a gas guzzling vehicle to do that, right?” It took more than a month to convince her husband to sell his relatively new SUV so they could replace it with a 2013 Nissan Leaf. They installed a level two charger in their home when they initially leased the Leaf and eventually bought it when the lease term was up.

Buying an EV made financial sense for Pham’s family, too. First of all, they bought an EV model they could afford. They kept their minivan for only family road trips and once-a-month trips to Portland to shop at Vietnamese grocery stores. Secondly, they reaped savings immediately. In 2012 and 2013, gas prices rose close to $4 per gallon. As of the writing of this article, the average gallon of gas in Oregon costs $4.30. With their solar panels at home, the EV added about $10 to their electric bill during the hottest summer months, and they saved at least $80 a month in fuel costs.

It didn’t take long for Pham’s husband to fall in love with their Leaf. It’s fun to drive. “He loves it more than I do because he likes to brag about it,” she said. In the early days of owning the Leaf, he would chase down other Leaf owners in parking lots to bond over their EV connection. When they lived in Bend, they drove it at least a couple of times to Mt. Bachelor for skiing trips. They outfitted their EV with studded tires in the winter and used chains whenever they needed extra traction. 

If you can afford it, why not be responsible?

Pham recognizes her family is privileged to be able to make these investments. “If you can afford it, why not be responsible?” She believes we have a responsibility to support new technologies that help address our climate crisis regardless of whether we recoup the costs of those investments. “There’s a cost to just living on this Earth,” she said. “We’re not taking into account the cost associated with the damage [of using fossil fuels].”

She wishes more humans operated with the seventh generation principle in mind; the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. “Indigenous cultures worldwide – they tend to think long term and big picture, and interconnectedness and interdependence,” Pham said. “When you remove humanity from how you consume resources, then you’re only thinking about making money… What’s the point of living if you don’t care about the people that come after you?”

Pham said the Nissan Leaf is a keeper. She and her husband are waiting for the price of batteries to go down so they can swap out the Leaf’s battery pack for a larger one with a longer range. “Because the Leaf has so few components to maintain, it’ll last a long time and we take care of it,” she said. How long? Pham hopes the electric car will be in her family for another 30 years.


Say what? We need a new way to talk about clean energy

March 9, 2022

Ever wondered how the photovoltaic power of a residential solar + storage system (solar array working in tandem with a battery storage system) uses net metering while producing net zero emissions? Did that sentence make sense to you? If not, you’re probably not the only one. 

When it comes to talking about clean energy and renewables, there is so much technical jargon thrown around that the average person can quickly lose interest. The incredible benefits these technologies can bring to our lives – and to the planet – can get lost in terminology that sounds like a foreign language to many of us.

A debate about how cleantech terms need a rebrand emerged on Twitter recently on the hot topic (pun intended) of heat pumps. As worded, these devices sound merely like something involved in heating your home. On the contrary, heat pumps act more like a “home comfort system” that both heat and cool. Even more importantly, they are a readily available climate solution that helps reduce gas emissions and pollution. 

In order for the majority of Americans to catch on to clean energy, cleantech gurus need to make these terms more accessible and meaningful.  To get this conversation started, we’ve taken a few super important words and phrases in the clean energy lexicon and paired them with some analogies to help them (hopefully) make more sense.

Net metering

Net metering is a techie-sounding term that belies an incredible opportunity to transform people’s relationship to energy in their homes and communities. Are we exaggerating? We’ll say more and you can decide. 

Net metering is what allows your solar panels to produce energy from your rooftop while saving you money on your electric bills. If your panels generate extra power from the sun’s rays that you don’t need, your utility company will give you a credit for it (that is, if net metering is offered in your state. It is in most.). This billing mechanism with a boring name should really be called, “sun dollars” or even “energy freedom.”

A 2017 public opinion poll found that most Americans support net metering, including 62% of “very conversative” respondents. However, utilities have long attempted to rollback net metering because it threatens their profits. Legislation is currently on the table in both California and Florida that threatens to repeal net metering altogether (Florida) or regulate it in a way that could benefit utilities (California). 


Net-zero: the state in which the amount of non-carbon emitting energy procured by an entity is equal to the amount of carbon-emitting energy used. In other words, buying renewable energy or carbon offsets to balance out the non-renewable energy. It’s like when you eat a full pizza by yourself, and then to make yourself feel better, you immediately go run a marathon to “run it off.”

Net-zero is a very good thing in theory, and many corporations and governments are pledging to become net-zero as part of their climate commitments. But as the New York Times climate desk explains in this helpful overview of climate buzzwords, “when governments or companies pledge to go net-zero, they’re not always promising to stop emitting carbon dioxide altogether. Often they’re saying that they will reduce fossil-fuel emissions… as much as they can and then offset whatever they can’t get rid of through other means.”  Critics say commitments that include carbon dioxide removal and other carbon offsets aren’t enough to balance out the emissions that actually get put into the air.   

Photovoltaic solar system 

That’s the same thing as solar (or solar panels).  ‘Nuff said.

Solar + storage

Solar + storage is solar (on your home or business) taken to the next level. On top of having solar power that is connected to the power grid (see next topic below), you also own a battery that can save excess energy generated from your solar panels. 

It’s sort of like your crunchy neighbor’s rain barrel. When it’s raining, you have more water than you need even after all your plants have been watered. You’re then storing extra water in this barrel, which you stockpile for when you really need it.

Solar + storage allows you to use energy either from the grid, or your battery–you get to choose. The stored energy in your battery can be used later for personal use or even for others in your community (e.g., as backup power during electricity outages). Schools across the country with solar + storage are serving as emergency centers during times of natural disasters, helping to keep the lights on while also providing emergency power to their neighbors. EnergySage provides a good overview of how solar and storage works

With its power to protect and mitigate the effects of natural disasters and emergencies, solar + storage should really be called something more heroic like, “resilient power.”


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The electrical grid

The electrical grid or, “the grid” is the network and infrastructure involved in generating energy and getting it to consumers. It’s how we get our electricity. 

To help explain the grid, let’s use the analogy of a coffee shop. Picture this: You’re sitting in a cute boutique coffee shop, you’re munching on a chocolate croissant, sipping your coffee beverage of choice.  The key here is coffee = electrical energy. Here’s a very basic look at how the grid works:

  1. Electricity gets made at a generator, a power plant. It’s made by burning fossil fuels, collecting wind, solar or water energy, or from nuclear reactions. (that’s the coffee maker. Mmm, espresso). 
  2. Next, the power travels to substations, which transform the voltage from low to high or high to low, depending on power needs. This is the cream counter. Coffee too strong? Add in some creamer. Want to ask for another shot? Now’s your chance.
  3. Lastly, electric power gets distributed from the stations out to customers via power lines. This is when an intern eagerly rushes away with 12 coffees in hand, to deliver to his co-workers.

What’s remarkable about powering your home or business with renewable energy (like solar power) is that you can connect this solar to the electrical grid, and when the sun isn’t shining,  you can also pull electricity from the grid. And by contributing to it when the sun is shining, you are helping keep the grid “cleaner.” You also have the option of storing the energy you generate (see solar + storage) and operating “off-grid.”  

Learn more about electricity and how the grid works from Generation180’s Energy Basics Bootcamp

Clean energy and renewables

Lastly, while terms like “clean energy” and “renewables” have made their way into the mainstream, and are therefore more broadly understood, we define them here just so we’re all on the same page. 

Clean energy, or renewables, are energy sources that come from natural sources or processes that are regularly replenished, such as sunlight, wind, and water.  Clean energy differs from “dirty energy,” such as gas, oil, coal, which are finite and when extracted and burned are harmful to the planet and people’s health. 

For more on this, the Natural Resources Defense Council provides a detailed look at solar, wind, hydropower, and other types of clean energy

On this front, we’d say that the cleantech PR guys got it right.


What does being a “clean energy voter” mean?

March 2, 2022

State primary election season is gearing up, kicking off Tuesday in Texas and continuing across the country into September. If you care about the climate, these elections are worth paying attention to. State and local elected officials—500,000 of them—are the gatekeepers to our cutting back the 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Climate Cabinet Action, a political action committee. 

Mid-terms mean we don’t need to wait for presidential elections every four years to support clean energy and climate-friendly policies. But what do you do in the interim?

The power of acting locally

You’ve heard the old phrase “think globally, act locally.” Nowhere is this idea more relevant than at the polls for city, county, and state levels of government. The officials at these tiers, from city mayors and council members to school board officials to governors, have a hand in policies that affect your access to clean energy. In many cases, their influence on your ability to “act locally” by going solar, buying an electric vehicle, and generally choosing clean energy is much greater than that of federal leaders.

Take, for example, what happens when you’re in the market for a new house. Often, decisions about whether that building will run on electricity or fossil gas have already been made, thanks to building codes and incentives. In California alone, more than 50 cities and counties have adopted building codes that prohibit or discourage new gas hookups in favor of power from an increasingly clean electric grid. This year, for example, a new policy in Contra Costa County will require new residential buildings, hotels, offices, and retail buildings to be all-electric. The county’s elected board of supervisors approved the policy 4-1. 

Similarly, state and local officials vote on whether to pursue 100% renewable energy, as more than 180 cities across the country have done; whether to incentivize electric vehicles and build charging stations; and whether to procure or install solar energy for public schools.

Sierra Club’s ‘Ready for 100’ map shows U.S. communities committed to 100% clean energy, currently powered by 100%, and/or running a local campaign.

What you can do

Being a clean energy voter means ensuring that your elected officials are doing everything they can to help shepherd a clean energy future. To start, that means finding out who they are.

A few examples of names to know for your corner of the country: U.S. lawmakers (your senators and your congressional district representative), the state governor, state legislators, the mayor and council members of your city, supervisor or executive for your county, and board of education leaders. Googling should do it, and the site Open States lists all federal and state representatives.

You don’t have to take on every clean energy issue: focus on one that’s important to you. Do you want electric buses for your child’s school district? A state rebate for electric cars or energy-efficient home renovations? Do you want your apartment building to offer EV charging? Maybe you care most about stronger policies to support going solar at home, or you’d rather see transportation funding go to public transit and bike paths rather than highway expansion projects. Pick one thing that’s important to you, find the elected official who matters, and make your voice heard.


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Every elected representative deals with a multitude of important issues, and many of them aren’t necessarily up to speed on them all. “States are chronically under-resourced,” said Caroline Spears, the founder of Climate Cabinet Action, in an interview last year. “The average state legislator in America makes $24,000 a year and has fewer than two staff.”

Spears’ group helps politicians understand and communicate about climate issues—you can too. Don’t assume your elected officials are focused on boosting clean energy just because they are Democrat—or that they aren’t thinking about it just because they are Republican. Clean energy and resilience hit home for everyone, and most local officials are pragmatists who live and work in their communities. They see where new economic opportunities and jobs lie—and these days, that’s often in the clean energy sector.

One silver lining of the pandemic is that many public meetings and town halls have gone virtual, making it easier than ever to chime in—and it’s likely many leaders will keep engaging with their constituents through remote events. Then, of course, there’s always email, social media, and in-person meetings for making your voice heard. 

It’s one thing for a politician to talk about clean energy. It’s another to actually mobilize policy that makes change real. Track how your elected officials vote—the Climate Cabinet has a handy scorecard for state legislators. Subscribe to your city and county newsletters and press releases to follow what’s happening. Take note of their participation in initiatives like the U.S. Climate Alliance (is your governor in this one?). See whether they are responsive to your suggestions on clean energy issues. Then… it’s your turn to vote.