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The education sector’s aging building stock is ripe with opportunities for energy savings, and a number of school districts are embracing zero energy design and construction strategies. Zero energy schools combine energy efficient technologies and renewable energy production that are capable of producing as much energy onsite as they consume over the span of a year. Given the complexities of zero energy projects, the Department of Energy launched the Zero Energy Schools Accelerator in 2016 to support school districts in reaching their ambitious energy goals. Accelerator Partners have access to DOE’s technical experts, analysis tools, and guidance resources to assist them in determining the best pathway for their specific needs. As of today, 14 school districts and states are collectively participating in the Accelerator with additional schools nationwide that are working towards achieving zero energy in their facilities.

More than half of all operating school districts are located in rural areas, making their energy needs and building infrastructure a bit different than their urban counterparts. The Friends School of Portland, located in Maine, is a small, independent school that was constructed to meet zero energy standards within a limited budget. Their building committee’s interest in adhering to sustainability through the lens of simplicity and stewardship drove their decision to not only achieve zero energy, but to also benchmark their usage in order to improve upon energy savings. Within its first year of operation the school was able to achieve an energy use intensity (EUI) of just 12 kBtu / square foot, well below the 63 kBtu / square foot average of a conventional school that is the same size.

Friends School of Portland
Friends School of Portland, Maine, achieves energy use intensity five times less than a conventional school.

Given the school’s limited budget, it was essential for the building committee and the design team to work together early in the planning process to determine suitable design features that would achieve zero energy. Unfortunately, the project’s first architect proposed plans that would not only be over budget, but also would not been the energy goals. Immediately recognizing the need for a new design firm, the building committee transitioned to an architect that took an integrated design approach by addressing each component – daylighting, heat loss, roof configuring, etc. – and the impact each design decision would have on energy consumption. The design team took special measures to ensure that future updates to the building would not be cost-prohibitive by developing a robust building envelope with structuring that would allow for simple insulation additions with minimal labor costs. The Friends School of Portland’s project team continues to work towards lowering its EUI to meet its energy goals through minor operational updates.

Douglas County School District
Douglas County School District, Nevada, uses innovative financing mechanisms to modernize and construct highly efficient schools.

School districts face unique hurdles in financing energy efficiency projects because they are public facilities, which require access to taxpayer funds, project input from a variety of stakeholders, and approval processes that can be drawn out over several years. Nevada’s Douglas County School District (DCSD) addressed these burdens through an innovative financing mechanism for schools interested in the modernization or construction of highly efficient schools, as well as those working towards zero energy. The multi-pronged approach employs energy savings contract (ESPC), grants, and bonds. Garnerville Elementary School was used as DCSD’s showcase project for meeting new districtwide energy-efficiency standards using newly implemented financing channels. The school, previously a three-building campus, was transformed to one building with lighting retrofits, daylight harvesting controls, light control sensors, a recommissioned energy management system, computer management software, and a trash compaction system among other upgrades. The school was able to achieve an annual energy and costs savings of 15 percent and create a healthier learning environment for the districts K-6 students and continues its efforts to improve performance.

Many urban school systems have seen significant growth of student body populations motivating school administrators to integrate capacity considerations into renovation or new construction projects. Arlington County School District, a Zero Energy Schools Accelerator partner experiencing a population boom, is located in Virginia just outside of the nation’s capital and houses one of the first schools to be certified zero energy on the east coast. Discovery Elementary was the result of a highly collaborative effort between the local community, the project team, and school administrators interested in maximizing energy efficiency. Designed to meet an EUI of 23 kBtu / square foot, substantially less than the district’s average of 69 kBtu / square foot, the school has the ability to host 650 students. Discovery is about 98,000 square feet and boasts a combination of energy-efficient technologies, operations strategies, and renewable energy to meet its ambitious goals:

  • Over 1,700 mounted solar panels
  • A geothermal well field
  • Domestic water preheated through solar technology
  • 100 percent LED lighting
  • Ideal solar orientation and shading
  • Rainwater catchment systems with the capacity to retain 260 gallons of water
  • Bioretention treatment areas to filter contaminants of storm water runoff
Classroom with two teachers and five children in it.
Discovery Elementary, Virginia, uses one-third the energy compared to an average school in Arlington, thanks to a highly efficient design, innovative technologies, and smart operations.

Arlington County has integrated Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) educational components that foster inquiry, logical reasoning, critical thinking, and collaboration skills into school curriculums. Discovery’s energy goals are also embedded into learning goals for students with the school itself serving as an interactive classroom while aligning with the county’s STEM focus. Students are encouraged to participate in the tracking of efficiency measures and determining how they can contribute to performance improvements. A rooftop solar lab allows students to conduct real time and ongoing experiments and 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 to and from school, 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.

The resounding message from school districts employing zero energy design and construction is that, while there are certain challenges, an integrated design process that engages all necessary stakeholders and the establishment of energy goals can help achieve the creation of highly efficient schools with positive impacts that extend far beyond energy performance. The Department of Energy leads research and development efforts through the Zero Energy Schools Accelerator to identify barriers school districts face and develops potential pathways to support school districts in their efforts.

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