Emerging Technology

Net Zero and Beyond

In January 2008, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) released a report that promised “to provide tools by 2020 that enable the building community to produce market-viable net-zero buildings by 2030.” No more waiting for Doc Brown to fix the flux capacitor in the DeLorean; the future is now!

The concept of a “net-zero” building, one capable of producing as much energy as it consumes, is a reality. The “2014 Getting to Zero Status Update” recently published by the New Buildings Institute (NBI) says the number of verified and emerging projects has doubled since their last report in 2012. The study identifies 160 net-zero projects in North America. Education buildings for K-12, and universities account for 36 percent of that total.

School districts in the United States currently spend over $6 billion on utilities. That is more than they spend on technology and textbooks combined. The education budgets continue to be lean, and the utility costs have become increasingly volatile. Some districts have decided to begin planning net-zero schools as a hedge against uncertain future utility costs.

Others have decided to use the current tax structure to their advantage and build net-zero schools. The Hoke County School System in North Carolina financed their new school through a public-private partnership, which allowed the project developer to take advantage of significant renewable energy tax incentives. Since opening in August 2013, Sandy Grove Middle School is generating 40 percent more electricity than it is consuming. When asked if Sandy Grove is a case study for North Carolina, architect Robbie Ferris of SfL+a Architecture says, “It is a case study for the nation!” It is in fact the first net positive energy, LEED platinum designed, leased public school in the United States.

Still other school districts are required to get to net zero or at least to the best practice standards of the Coalition of High Performance Schools (CHPS) or the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification process to comply with state regulations. The State of California will require all new commercial construction to be zero net energy (ZNE) by 2030 and they anticipate that by that year 50 percent of their buildings will be ZNE. Florida has developed the Florida Net Zero Energy Strategic Initiative (FNZESI) and at least 33 states require or encourage LEED best practices at various levels for public buildings.

To get to net zero, school facilities employ a renewable energy source — usually photovoltaic panels and sometimes wind power — and a significant increase in operating efficiencies. Most of these buildings are positioned on site to maximize daylighting potential, which is supplemented by high efficiency LED lighting with motion detector control systems. Geothermal or other high efficiency heating and cooling equipment is controlled by building automation systems, and passive solar systems are utilized to heat provide hot water. The U.S. Department of Energy reports in the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) that the national average for education buildings is 83 kBtu/sf/yr. By contrast, the average for verified net-zero schools listed in the NBI report is only 27 kBtu/sf/yr, with a range between 19 and 40.

But the best part of net-zero schools is they are used as an educational tool. Net-zero designs are the perfect combination of sustainable design and educational program. Many of the schools use the buildings and the dashboards showing power acquisition and consumption as real-time demonstrations for their students and visiting classes. Some districts admit that this feature in particular was the tipping point in the decision to go to a net-zero design. In Texas, Irving ISD’s Lady Bird Johnson Middle School is an award-winning net-zero school. The Principal, Angie Gaylord, says of the school, “This building looks and functions differently from any building I’ve ever seen. The school itself is helping to teach lessons and science concepts, and it motivates our students and teachers to focus on innovation and creativity.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Authors

Andrew LaRowe is president of EduCon Educational Consulting located in Winston Salem, N.C.

Mike Raible is founder and CEO of The School Solutions Group in Charlotte, N.C., and the author of "Every Child, Every Day: Achieving Zero Dropouts Through Performance-Based Education"

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