Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

A Pathway to Zero Energy Schools

February 28, 2018

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Discovery Elementary in Arlington County, VA, a zero energy school; courtesy VCBO Architecture.

Spring break is almost upon us and students are getting ready for some time away from reading, writing, and mid-terms. While students are hoping to return to high-scores, others may be returning to low scores – even zero. Zero energy buildings, that is.

Zero energy buildings are defined by the Building Technologies Office (BTO) as extremely energy efficient buildings that can meet all annual consumption needs from renewable energy produced onsite. These buildings utilize a combination of innovative design strategies, efficient technologies, and improvements in the management of building operations to keep energy needs low. BTO works to help schools become zero energy “ready” by providing technical resources and guidance that results in ultra-efficient school buildings with reduced operating costs. 

The K-12 sector alone spends $6 billion annually in the U.S. on energy bills, more than textbooks and computers combined, and second only to teacher salaries. Reducing energy usage by 20% across the education sector would result in energy cost savings of more than $3.3 billion that K-12 schools, colleges, and universities can better spend on educating students. Zero energy design and construction provides an opportunity to decrease spending on operations and maintenance of facilities, which can provide savings for reinvestment in the classroom. Thanks to the incorporation of energy performance goals into deep retrofit and new construction projects, K-12 schools have seen a rapid rise in the adoption of zero energy design. One of the benefits school districts across the nation have also seen are that the technologies featured in these advanced buildings provide students first-hand exposure to energy efficiency in the classroom and basically serve as a natural conduit to making science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) lesson plans more engaging.

Setting measurable goals is the first commitment a school district will make in their journey to zero energy schools. However, given the highly complex nature of achieving zero energy, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has been working to provide technical resources and guides to better assist education administrators in understanding how zero energy might work for their school.

Zero Energy Schools Accelerator

The Energy Department’s Zero Energy Schools Accelerator provides school districts with technical guidance resources to help break down barriers towards achieving zero energy.  Resources such as the Technical Feasibility Study for Zero Energy K-12 Schools, developed through technical assistance partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), shows how K-12 schools can achieve zero energy within the construction budget of a conventional school across all U.S. climate zones with today’s technologies.

One of Many Pathways to “Zero”

Most recently, DOE and NREL provided support for the development of ASHRAE’s Advanced Energy Design Guide for K-12 School Buildings: Achieving Zero Energy intended for elementary, middle, and high schools interested in pursuing zero energy goals. Its lessons echo previous lessons from zero energy schools who successfully exhibited that zero energy schools are attainable within budgets comparable to those of traditionally built schools. The guide also provides school design, architecture, engineering, and construction project teams with the specific how-to knowledge, strategies and solutions to design and construct better schools across the country.

Zero energy design and construction strategies serve as an opportunity for to school districts to promote fiscal responsibility while redirecting saved tax dollars to improvements that benefit students, teachers, and the districts as a whole.