Children around the nation are heading back to school, and some are going into buildings that have significant energy savings potential. Zero energy schools can use up to 80% less energy than conventional schools—that’s a lot of money that could be used for school supplies instead of energy bills!

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is working with k-12 school districts around the country to break down barriers to zero energy and create inspiring, dynamic learning environments. Through the assistance of technical experts and solutions-oriented peer exchange, school districts and states are creating facilities that can produce enough renewable energy to meet their consumption needs, while also providing students and educators environments to thrive in.

What is a Zero Energy School?

The lunch room at Discovery Elementary, a zero energy school.

LED lighting can be one feature integrated into a zero energy school design.

A zero energy school is an energy efficient building, where on a source energy basis, the actual annual energy delivered is less than or equal to the onsite renewable energy produced. While project designs are based on a school’s specific priorities and preferences, the majority leverage a combination of innovative design strategies, efficient equipment, improvements in operations management, and renewable energy sources—most notably photovoltaic systems given the capacity for panel installation. 

Supporting School Districts

Growth in student populations, aging building infrastructure and increasing energy costs are resulting in the education sector spending approximately $14 billion in building construction and renovation costs. K-12 schools have been on the cutting-edge of energy efficiency, however, achieving zero energy requires a significant amount of technical wherewithal, proper tools, and guidance resources.

DOE partnered with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to develop a feasibility study on zero energy schools. The study shows that it is possible to achieve zero energy schools in all U.S. climates with today’s technologies. It also provided specific energy usage targets to cost-effectively achieve zero energy and focused on strategies to balance energy consumption and energy supply to facilitate a school’s ability to meet its own energy needs.

The pathways for managing energy consumption include optimal design of the building walls, roof, and windows, lighting systems, heating ventilation and air conditioning systems, controls, and service water heating. Paramount to the success of any combination of these strategies is establishing energy consumption targets, which also requires integrating climate-appropriate design.

Planning = Success

Zero energy schools require careful planning and partnership across all relevant stakeholders. Recently, the San Francisco Unified School District, a Zero Energy Schools Accelerator partner, incorporated NREL’s energy usage target in their future planning for design and construction.  

Similarly, Discovery Elementary, located just outside the nation’s capital in Arlington, VA, worked closely with its project team and school administrators to model inventive building and design approaches that would help reach their zero energy target. Similar to the prototyping used by NREL researchers to determine appropriate pathways to zero energy, Discovery’s collaborative team experimented with a variety of shapes and orientations for the new building. After analyzing each model for its energy efficiency and renewable energy production potential, the ultimate design integrated:

  • Ideal solar orientation and shading
  • Over 1,700 mounted solar panels
  • A geothermal well field
  • 100 percent LED lighting
  • Rainwater catchment systems
  • Bioretention treatment areas.
Video Url

Watch how Discovery Elementary became a zero energy school.

Video courtesy of the Department of Energy

Discovery’s energy goals are also embedded within learning goals for students with the school’s interior design serving as an interactive classroom. Students are encouraged to participate in the tracking of efficiency measures and learn how to contribute to performance improvements. A rooftop solar lab allows students to conduct real-time experiments as the associated data is monitored through a building dashboard system accessible on any device in the school. Students are also involved in supporting smart and sustainable transportation by tracking the number of cars at drop off and pick up, as well as instituting a bike-or-walk to school day and tracking the associated energy savings.