DOE Launches Signature Partnership to Jump-Start Zero Energy Schools

December 8, 2016

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On December 6, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced the launch of a new partnership to jump-start zero energy schools across the country and better enable states and school districts alike to design, construct, and operate these cutting-edge, energy-saving schools. The launch of the Zero Energy Schools Accelerator, part of the Better Buildings Initiative, brings together seven school districts, two states, and several national organizations committed to working collaboratively toward the goal of increasing zero energy design and construction in the education sector and among local communities across the nation. A Zero Energy Building is an energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy.

“Schools in this country spend about $8 billion each year on energy, about a quarter of which is wasted from inefficiency, which costs taxpayers and school kids alike,” said David Nemtzow, director, Building Technologies Office (BTO). “This Accelerator will help schools significantly reduce energy while also helping them save money, freeing up much-needed funding that could be rededicated to other learning priorities.”

The Accelerator was launched as part of an in-person tour of a recently completed zero energy school, the Discovery Elementary School located near the nation’s capital, in Arlington, Virginia. The tour, led by Dr. Erin Russo, principal of Discovery Elementary; John C. Chadwick, assistant superintendent for Arlington Public Schools; and Catherine Lin, energy manager for Arlington Public Schools, highlighted several design features including 100% LED lighting, solar thermal water heating for the school’s kitchen to reduce its energy load, low-flow plumbing fixtures to save water, and more than 1,700 mounted solar panels.

“Discovery is highly efficient because the effort to build it was highly collaborative from the start and continues to be today,” said R. Anthony Hans, CMTA, an engineering consultancy that worked in tandem with VMDO Architects as a part of the Discovery Elementary design team. “We track systems data in collaboration with the school to ensure that we can get in and fix anything that is malfunctioning on a weekly basis. Continuous collaboration is one of the main reasons that this schools is performing 10-20% better than our energy model.”

Discovery’s energy goals are also integrated into learning goals for students, allowing them to assist in and learn from data collection associated with the tracking of energy performance data to ensure performance expectations are being met. Students have the opportunity to analyze the school’s solar panel array through the tracking of energy produced and consumed, and are encouraged by teachers to determine methods to increase efficiency. A student council also exists to track the student body’s efficiency, including implementing ways to reduce waste in the cafeteria and increase sustainable transportation to and from school.

“We have created a safe environment for our students to want to learn in with a sense of ownership through involvement in our efforts to maintain efficient operations,” said Dr. Russo. “Children sometimes have to be pulled from classes by their parents for things like doctor’s appointments, and at other schools, those kids often don’t come back. At Discovery, we see students come back at 3 p.m., even when the school day is almost over, because they want to be here. They enjoy learning here.”

Through programs like the Zero Energy Schools Accelerator, zero energy schools have the potential to save 65 to 80 percent in energy consumption, depending on local climate. By aggressively pursuing energy efficiency opportunities, school districts could dedicate these savings toward other learning needs, including salaries for teachers, computers, or books. Given the myriad benefits – from opportunities to improve energy performance to design elements to better support learning – the rise of zero energy schools will help accelerate the entire market towards high performance energy design, construction, and operation.