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August 30, 2018

It's much easier for schools to get to net zero

  • Not only is it getting cheaper to install solar energy systems, but local grants and incentives are available to defray improvement costs.
    Sazan Environmental Services


    According to the U.S. Department of Energy, energy consumption is the second-highest operational expense for schools. K-12 schools across the country spend $6 billion annually on energy bills, more than they spend on textbooks and computers combined.

    Over the past 10 years, schools throughout the United States have targeted net-zero energy as a framework for delivering operational cost savings, student comfort, and increased educational and resiliency benefits. In fact, schools have outpaced all other building types in the net-zero energy marketplace, accounting for 37 percent of all verified and emerging net-zero buildings.

    Energy savings

    Net-zero energy measures can yield approximately 65-80 percent in energy savings beyond conventional schools. Developing net-zero energy schools is now more achievable than ever, especially with advances in energy-efficient appliances and incorporating age-old passive design strategies.

    Photo provided by Sazan Environmental Services [enlarge]
    This elementary school in Arlington, Virginia, generates more energy than it uses in a year.

    Best practices include using optimized building orientation, passive heating and cooling strategies, increased insulation, LED lighting, heat pumps, energy monitoring, and rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays that are connected to the utility’s power grid. In this “grid-tied” solar PV system configuration, solar power can reduce a school’s energy demands from the utility company and generate surplus power to be exported back onto the grid for billing credits.

    Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, is one of the larger examples in the nation. Opened in 2015, the school installed a 500-kilowatt solar array with 1,700 solar roof panels that makes the building “net-positive energy,” meaning it generates more energy than it uses over a calendar year.


    In addition to monetary benefits, net-zero design can improve the student experience. Amarpreet Sethi leads DLR Group’s Building Performance Design team.

    She notes: “Using good design principles to meet a net-zero goal for schools can also lead to an improved learning environment. It is key that schools first reduce energy consumption using holistic means — by improving daylighting, thermal comfort, indoor-air quality, and reducing global warming potential and carbon emissions. Improving the indoor environment further improves the return on investment through improved student performance.”

    One additional benefit of net-zero energy schools is the potential for providing resilient power for critical electrical loads and emergency systems. Combining rooftop solar PV and an energy-efficient design provides ideal conditions for incorporating battery storage systems to deliver off-grid energy capabilities.

    National Electric Code mandates that grid-tied solar PV installations shut down during an outage, unless the system incorporates smart battery storage. Currently, the city of Seattle is deploying a solar-powered micro-grid with commercial-scale batteries to support resilient power in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, which incorporates a public education component focusing on the nexus between climate change and resiliency.

    Students are taking action to advance these solutions through initiatives like the Seattle Youth Climate Action Network, UW Solar student organization, and Shoreline Community College’s Clean Technology and Entrepreneurship program.

    Local resources

    Washington state has taken a leadership role on net-zero energy initiatives. In January, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Executive Order 18-01, aka State Efficiency and Environmental Performance, which mandates a net-zero energy design target for all state buildings. Washington state also offers renewable energy production incentives and grant dollars from the Department of Commerce’s Clean Energy Fund to support solar on existing K-12 schools.

    Other solar energy grants, such as Seattle City Light’s Green Up grant funding program, identify K-12 schools as eligible applicants, complemented by Seattle Public Schools Green Team grant funding each year.

    Local coalitions such as Shift Zero have formed to unite the green building community around solutions-oriented approaches to help accelerate net-zero energy buildings, policies, programs and resources for the future of Washington’s built environment.

    Community Solar programs offer district and community-scale renewable energy solutions, and other off-site energy procurement strategies continue to emerge, such as Puget Sound Energy’s Green Direct program, which procures wind power for large customers. And the University of Washington Clean Energy Institute’s innovations in scalable thin-film solar PV applications, energy storage and smart controls promise affordable, scalable solutions for Washington’s clean energy future.

    Certification programs

    As net-zero buildings scale around the world, several certification programs verify performance and develop case studies, including the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge and Zero Energy Certification program.

    While net-zero energy definitions and certification programs vary, the feasibility of this design strategy has been proven in public and private projects, led by a growing number of energy experts in the local design and construction community.

    One example of a local school using solar PV to meet net-zero goals is Seattle’s Bertschi School. It incorporates passive and active energy-efficiency measures, with more than 100 percent of the building’s net annual energy demand produced by renewable energy.

    Bellevue School District has been a local pioneer in driving down the energy use of its new facilities, with Puesta del Sol Elementary School, currently in design, targeting net-zero by installing up to 300 kilowatts of PV panels.

    A sensible choice

    The availability of grant resources, net metering credits and renewable energy production incentives, coupled with rapidly reduced costs for installing solar PV, makes developing net-zero energy schools increasingly more financially viable and sensible.

    Government agencies are encouraging sustainable design, and K-12 schools are implementing net-zero strategies into their performance goals. These strategies provide cost savings and benefits to students, teachers and the broader community.

    Similar to how a tree operates within the carrying capacity of its site, net-zero energy schools can serve as a biophilic design strategy to limit environmental impacts while educating and inspiring the next generation of leaders.

    Jack Newman is a sustainable design consultant at Sazan Environmental Services and formerly managed the Zero Energy Building Certification program for the International Living Future Institute.

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