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4 reasons net-zero energy should start with schools

Considering their large electricity bills, could schools save money and improve children’s education by investing in net zero energy buildings?

Can we afford to teach our children? In the U.S. we generally can agree that educating our children is important. Consensus stops there.

Whether the U.S. education system is broken, and if so, how to best fix it, is an increasingly politicized debate. Current discussions on how to improve education have focused on better teachers, better technology and more funding (which deepens the debate on who should pay for it).

But consider that each year K–12 schools spend more than $8 billion on energy — more than they spend on computers and textbooks combined. Too commonly overlooked is the opportunity to cost-effectively improve our nation’s schools and enhance student performance by tackling the performance of the very buildings in which children, faculty and staff spend more than eight hours each day. 

With energy costs averaging about $300 per student per year, cash-strapped districts have found improving energy performance as the best way to lower operating and maintenance costs.

The majority of school facilities fail to meet even basic occupant needs, and fall short on meeting the evolving education demands for a 21st century economy.

RMI and New Buildings Institute (NBI) believe schools are a prime market for neft-zero energy design and operation, in both new construction and deep energy retrofit projects of existing building. Early examples and analysis show that net zero schools are more beneficial to districts, occupants and the environment.

Catch the “Net Zero Energy: Scaling it to the Mainstream” session at VERGE 16, Sept. 19-22, in Santa Clara, California.

Even in the absence of bond funding, numerous ways exist to finance and achieve the goals of net zero energy, such as energy performance contracting, power purchase agreements and other public institution energy-efficiency financing mechanisms.

Why invest in net zero schools? Consider the following benefits that extend far beyond energy cost savings. 

1. Improves health

Improving indoor air quality can help improve the health of students, faculty and staff, reducing absenteeism. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. students miss about 14 million school days per year because of asthma or other respiratory issues related to poor indoor air quality. Improving indoor air quality alone can prevent more than 65 percent of asthma cases among elementary school-age children.

Passive design strategies such as natural ventilation, improved insulation and airtightness, and the introduction of biophilic elements such as indoor plants that reduce volatile organic compounds and other air pollutants can improve the quality of indoor air and reduce the need for costly, energy-intensive HVAC equipment. 

2. Increased productivity

Many design features critical to achieving net zero energy also lead to enhanced productivity. Daylighting not only reduces the need for energy-intensive lighting but also improves mood and alertness and provides students with a visual connection to nature.

By taking a more innovative and integrated approach to designing and delivering thermal comfort (as seen in RMI’s Innovation Center), schools can improve individual occupant comfort in a variety of diverse climates using dramatically less energy. USGBC’s Center for Green Schools has published ample research on the connection between school buildings and student health and learning.

3. Innovative education opportunities

Net zero buildings are the future. They provide a level of design, technology integration and measurement and monitoring beyond what the average building affords. Teachers can leverage these tools to drive experiential learning about passive design, on-site energy generation and storage, cutting-edge technology, community integration and the natural environment. They provide a learning lab far more effective than any textbook. 

4. Cost cutting

Operating costs can be a significant component of school budgets. With energy costs averaging about $300 per student per year, cash-strapped districts have found improving energy performance as the best way to lower operating and maintenance costs, freeing up critical funds for teachers, textbooks or programs that benefit children.

According to NBI, school buildings are held and operated for an extended time, ensuring payback of any incremental costs for net zero energy performance through lower annual energy expenses.

Plus, many schools are low rise and have large, unshaded roof and parking areas that are ideal for deployment of solar panels. Schools can take advantage of innovative solar financing options and — depending on the incentives provided by their local utility — gain an income stream by selling clean energy back to the grid.

Leading examples

Leading U.S. school districts from California (PDF) to Virginia have decided to bring their schools into the 21st century by aggressively tackling energy performance and incorporating renewable energy into their portfolios.

The Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) in Colorado has an ambitious program to have its portfolio of more than 50 school buildings be net zero energy and achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. Over 70 percent of BVSD’s 4.8 million square feet of buildings are over 30 years old, so the program includes retrocommissioning and deep retrofits as well as new construction. Preliminary modeling showed that in three buildings alone the design team could achieve an average energy savings of 67 percent, and reach an energy use intensity (EUI) of under 30, saving the district $58,000 a year.

Teachers can leverage these tools to drive experiential learning about passive design, on-site energy generation and storage, cutting-edge technology, community integration and the natural environment.

Thanks to the success of a formal energy management program that saved over $2 million since 2007, it was a logical next step for the Kenton County School District in Edgewood, Kentucky, to seek out new efficiency opportunities and pursue net zero goals in new construction projects such as Turkey Foot Middle School (PDF). A tight building envelope, daylighting, high-performance HVAC and two PV arrays — 385 kW on the roof and a 58 kW solar canopy — allow the building to achieve a net energy use intensity of 11 kBtu/SF/year, and reduce building energy costs by 59.4 percent.

The 152,000 square foot Lady Bird Johnson Middle School in Irving, Texas, was considered the largest beyond-net-zero energy school when it opened in 2011. This building takes a unique approach to comfort and daylighting in Texas’s hot climate and brings the concept of living lab to a whole new level. It features project-based learning programs based on the facility’s energy and water systems using four nodes, each with digital interactive displays focusing on renewable energy and water conservation.

The amplification effect

As more schools pursue net zero energy strategies, lessons learned can help drive the entire industry forward. Many schools employ similar and relatively simple designs that would facilitate widespread implementation of energy efficiency. 

“The schools market is well aggregated with a fairly consistent set of design teams doing much of the renovation work. Good communication exists among districts, and roles and financial strategies for capital projects are well defined,” said Stacey Hobart of NBI. 

With more than 100,000 public schools in the U.S., K–12 schools represent highly visible models within communities that can help diffuse innovation into the surrounding cities and counties. But more important, one in six Americans set foot in a school every day, many of them children. Net zero schools can save taxpayer dollars while teaching, inspiring and showing millions of students that they — and our environment — are a priority worth investing in.

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