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Net-zero schools save big on energy costs

A net-zero building produces more energy than it consumes within the course of a year
Students from Richard J. Lee Elementary School, part of Coppell ISD in Dallas, have a lesson in the school garden.
Students from Richard J. Lee Elementary School, part of Coppell ISD in Dallas, have a lesson in the school garden.

Districts recovering from the recession and in need of new buildings and renovations can save money over time by building net-zero energy schools, architects say.

A net-zero building produces more energy than it consumes within the course of a year. Some buildings are considered “net-zero ready,” which means they are designed to achieve the standard at a later date, when the renewable energy source is purchased and installed. For instance, a school may design a roof that can eventually hold hundreds of solar panels.

“It makes sense financially—with a capital investment up front, you have decades of energy savings,” says Joe da Silva, who has led construction on two net-zero ready schools as a construction coordinator for the Rhode Island Department of Education. “Building maintenance and utilities are often one of a district’s largest costs—if you can tackle that by creating net-zero, you’re harvesting your own energy and not paying for utility costs.”

The number of net-zero U.S. buildings doubled between 2012 and 2014, to 213 total. One-third of those buildings are K12 schools and universities, according to the New Buildings Institute.

Photovoltaic energy from solar panels is the primary renewable source used, da Silva says. Geothermal and wind energy also power some buildings.

“Schools are charged with educating students for a future that has certain issues, not the least of which are the impacts of climate change,” da Silva says. “Net-zero really engages young people in those discussions.”

Although the up-front construction costs may be higher, utility companies often provide incentives and rebates for schools to get to the point of being net-zero ready, da Silva says.

Tips for going net-zero

  1. Engage students in active conservation to understand.
  2. Examine current use of energy, and minimize it to the greatest extent possible. For example, add controls to shut lights off and turn machines down when not in use.
  3. Incorporate a renewable energy source somewhere.
  4. Educate users on the workings of the building, how it functions and the maintenance required. Use the school’s sustainable features as a teaching tool.

Claiborne Pell Elementary, a pre-K through grade 4 school in Newport Public Schools in Rhode Island, was completed in 2013 for $28 million. Instead of designing a large building with rooms that would be empty for much of the day, architects created a smaller school with flexible, multi-purpose spaces—such as a combined cafeteria and auditorium.

The project was funded in part by the state Department of Education, and received energy efficiency rebates from National Grid. The school is projected to save $116,855 annually.

Sustainability meets technology

Richard J. Lee Elementary School, part of Coppell ISD in Dallas, opened its doors in August 2014 as the district’s first net-zero ready school. It has over 1,000 solar panels on its roof and a wind turbine outside. Geothermal wells heat and cool the building, and natural light illuminates classrooms.

Reclaimed rainwater irrigates school garden soil and flushes toilets. Students sort their trash and recycle during lunch, and fertilize the garden using compost. And outdoor learning spaces give students the chance for hands-on lessons in living organisms, the environment and other topics.

Students can access a digital data dashboard to see the amount of electricity used, water collected each day, and waste recycled and composted. “They get to know immediately the impact they’ve had on the environment with their school,” says Principal Chantel Kastrounis. “It’s given them a larger understanding of their contribution and impact on the world.”

Bond funding paid for most of the school, and administrators received grants for the solar panels. School leaders will learn this summer if they succeeded in reaching net-zero status by creating more energy than consumed over the year.