4 reasons net-zero energy should start with schools
Can we afford to teach our children? In the U.S. we generally can agree that educating our children is important. Consensus stops there.
Whether the U.S. education system is broken, and if so, how to best fix it, is an increasingly politicized debate. Current discussions on how to improve education have focused on better teachers, better technology and more funding (which deepens the debate on who should pay for it).
But consider that each year K–12 schools spend more than $8 billion on energy — more than they spend on computers and textbooks combined. Too commonly overlooked is the opportunity to cost-effectively improve our nation’s schools and enhance student performance by tackling the performance of the very buildings in which children, faculty and staff spend more than eight hours each day.
The majority of school facilities fail to meet even basic occupant needs, and fall short on meeting the evolving education demands for a 21st century economy.
RMI and New Buildings Institute (NBI) believe schools are a prime market for neft-zero energy design and operation, in both new construction and deep energy retrofit projects of existing building. Early examples and analysis show that net zero schools are more beneficial to districts, occupants and the environment.
Catch the “Net Zero Energy: Scaling it to the Mainstream” session at VERGE 16, Sept. 19-22, in Santa Clara, California.
Even in the absence of bond funding, numerous ways exist to finance and achieve the goals of net zero energy, such as energy performance contracting, power purchase agreements and other public institution energy-efficiency financing mechanisms.
Why invest in net zero schools? Consider the following benefits that extend far beyond energy cost savings.
1. Improves health
Improving indoor air quality can help improve the health of students, faculty and staff, reducing absenteeism. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. students miss about 14 million school days per year because of asthma or other respiratory issues related to poor indoor air quality. Improving indoor air quality alone can prevent more than 65 percent of asthma cases among elementary school-age children.
Passive design strategies such as natural ventilation, improved insulation and airtightness, and the introduction of biophilic elements such as indoor plants that reduce volatile organic compounds and other air pollutants can improve the quality of indoor air and reduce the need for costly, energy-intensive HVAC equipment.
2. Increased productivity
Many design features critical to achieving net zero energy also lead to enhanced productivity. Daylighting not only reduces the need for energy-intensive lighting but also improves mood and alertness and provides students with a visual connection to nature.
By taking a more innovative and integrated approach to designing and delivering thermal comfort (as seen in RMI’s Innovation Center), schools can improve individual occupant comfort in a variety of diverse climates using dramatically less energy. USGBC’s Center for Green Schools has published ample research on the connection between school buildings and student health and learning.
3. Innovative education opportunities
Net zero buildings are the future. They provide a level of design, technology integration and measurement and monitoring beyond what the average building affords. Teachers can leverage these tools to drive experiential learning about passive design, on-site energy generation and storage, cutting-edge technology, community integration and the natural environment. They provide a learning lab far more effective than any textbook.
4. Cost cutting
Operating costs can be a significant component of school budgets. With energy costs averaging about $300 per student per year, cash-strapped districts have found improving energy performance as the best way to lower operating and maintenance costs, freeing up critical funds for teachers, textbooks or programs that benefit children.
According to NBI, school buildings are held and operated for an extended time, ensuring payback of any incremental costs for net zero energy performance through lower annual energy expenses.
Plus, many schools are low rise and have large, unshaded roof and parking areas that are ideal for deployment of solar panels. Schools can take advantage of innovative solar financing options and — depending on the incentives provided by their local utility — gain an income stream by selling clean energy back to the grid.
Leading U.S. school districts from California (PDF) to Virginia have decided to bring their schools into the 21st century by aggressively tackling energy performance and incorporating renewable energy into their portfolios.
The Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) in Colorado has an ambitious program to have its portfolio of more than 50 school buildings be net zero energy and achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050.