Recently, I attended a webinar hosted by the Green Building Research Institute (GBRI) entitled “Zero Energy, Zero Carbon & Electrification: Possible and Happening!”
Zero net energy (ZNE) buildings have been a common green building trend for projects seeking high performance – especially those in the commercial sector. But this level of performance remains out of reach for many K-12 schools and districts, where improved health and energy savings can make a huge difference to students and teachers who spend 1,000 hours per year in these buildings.
The speakers of the webinar imagined and explored what zero net energy and electrification could mean for K-12 schools. The webinar aimed to help schools and school districts understand what net zero energy buildings are, share case studies, and help identify the many benefits that could accompany this type of building. There were three main speakers who presented at the webinar: Amy Cortese (New Buildings Institute), Will Vicent (California Energy Commission), and Mike Wilson (Warren County Public Schools, KY).
As the Director of Research and Impact at GBA, one of my roles is to support K-12 schools in their participation of the Pittsburgh and Erie 2030 Districts. I was excited to learn about net zero energy school examples and resources to share with schools in our network.
What do schools need to know about net zero energy? These were the main takeaways I learned from each speaker.
California Energy Code
Will Vicent shared details about why the California Energy Code is so ambitious and how it enables projects.
The Warren-Alquist Act established the California Energy Code in 1974. This act was created to change the way California uses energy by challenging the state to reduce wasteful, uneconomical, inefficient, or unnecessary consumption of energy. The Warren-Alquist Act also challenges the state of California to update and enforce the Energy Code on a regular basis. As a result, California uses 31% less energy than most states in the U.S.
California recently adopted the updated 2022 Energy Code. Encouraging school buildings to reach net zero status is not only beneficial to the health of the students, faculty, and staff, but it is also cost effective.
The Language Behind Net Zero
Amy Cortese helped to demystify technical language associated with net zero.
Zero net energy, zero energy, and net zero energy: these are all terms that essentially describe an efficient building that generates energy onsite in a quantity equal to or greater than the total amount of energy consumed onsite. In other words: a building that produces more energy than it uses in a given year.
Zero energy ready is another term commonly used, and it describes an efficient and healthy building that has the infrastructure ready to become net zero, but the project team may not have all the resources needed to be completely net zero. For example, a project may lack the funding to install solar power to produce energy on site, but once purchased and installed, the solar panels would exceed the energy needs of the building.
Electrification in buildings refers to the act of eliminating fossil-fuel powered equipment and replacing them with viable electrical substitutes.
Zero Carbon or Carbon Neutral describes an efficient, all electric building that is served by 100% renewable energy. This includes the operational and embodied carbon (to learn more about embodied carbon, check out our upcoming Bridge to 2030 event!).
Warren County Public Schools Case Study
Mike Wilson shared a case study of Warren County Public Schools in Kentucky.
Mike shared details about Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) and their journey to become a fully net zero school district, which serves 25 schools, 18,000 students, and 2,500 staff members. The district is credited with being one of the first school districts in Kentucky to have a full-time energy manager on staff.
The district has saved more than $14 million since its Conservation Program began in 2003 and more than 95% of buildings have earned Energy Star Labels.
WCPS Richardsville Elementary, originally built in 1946, is the first K-12 school in the nation to reach net zero status. It was a $14.9 million retrofit project in which some elements of the older building were used to update the new building.
This particular project included:
2,000 solar panels on its roof and 700 over its parking structure
Geothermal (HVAC) heating and cooling
Insulated concrete form (ICF) walls
Demand controlled ventilation
A north-south building orientation to capture daylighting during 70% of school hours
Stained floors and polished concrete to reduce the effort required to buff and clean
ENERGY STAR kitchen equipment
Energy dashboard for continual monitoring
The overall goal of the project was to drastically reduce energy consumption. School board officials realized that their biggest district cost went to salary and wages of staff, and their second greatest bill came from utilities.
the fall of 2007, Plano Elementary, a school located in the same district, became the state’s most energy efficient school. Following that success story, Mark Ryles, then facilities director for the Kentucky Department of Education, wondered “How would one design a net-zero energy school and how much would it cost?”
The biggest lesson learned from this project was that, while all schools may not be able to attain net zero energy status, Richardsville Elementary School shows that extensive energy reduction can be achieved when project management teams work together to plan and implement building strategies that are intentional, equitable and inclusive at every level of the building process.
At GBA, the 2030 District program engages K-12 schools throughout Western Pennsylvania, reaching educators, administrators, facility directors and students. Our goal is to promote high-performing, vibrant, healthy, and just school environments. Therefore, our work is aimed at helping schools to lower their energy and water use, improve their indoor air quality and reinvest the savings in the school environment. If you are a school interested in learning more about becoming a 2030 District partner, please reach out to our 2030 District team. Our hope is that everyone can live, work, learn, and play in a healthy, high-performing building. Remember that net zero energy is achievable by all, using the abundance of resources available.
Will Vicent, CEM, LEED AP, is Manager of Building Standards at the California Energy Commission. Will is dedicated to reimagining our built environment into one that is more inspired, more ecologically intelligent, and more equitably distributed. Throughout his career he has worked collaboratively with nationally recognized design firms, builders, developers, utilities and research entities to bring to life verified zero emission buildings. Currently, he leads an all-star office at the California Energy Commission who are responsible for maintaining and updating California’s Energy Code, its companion energy compliance software, and outreach & education programs. In 2019, he received the Net Zero Trailblazer award for his leadership in decarbonizing our environment.
Amy Cortese is Program Director at New Buildings Institute (NBI). Amy has experience in sustainable design consulting and implementation of energy efficiency market transformation approaches. At NBI, Amy is responsible for managing implementation teams covering all aspects of NBI’s work. Her research has covered a broad range of technical topics, including individual and whole building technologies as well as a deep dive into decarbonizing the school sector. Amy also now serves on the CHPS Board of Directors.
Mike Wilson has been Director of Facilities for Warren County (KY) Public Schools since 2015. In this role, he oversees the district’s custodial services and energy management. He is a native of Warren County who desires to see the students of the district grow academically, athletically, and socially, and he strives to ensure his department delivers exceptional service to the district’s more than 17,000 students and 2,500 adults. Mike also served on the Warren County Board of Education and helped oversee the renovation of 5 schools and the construction of 7 schools, including the nation’s first net zero energy elementary school, Richardsville Elementary. Mike has also recently joined the CHPS Board of Directors.
GBRI, in partnership with CHPS, provides resources to schools, school districts, and professionals regarding all aspects of high-performance school buildings. The overall purpose of the partnership is to create healthy, green schools.
Learn more about the GBRI and CHPS’ School Building Science Friday webinar series.
On-demand recording and slides for the “Zero Energy, Zero Carbon & Electrification: Possible and Happening!” webinar are currently available at https://chps.net/school-building-science-fridays and https://www.gbrionline.org/chps-partnership/.
Data & info on Richardsville ES (PDF):
Top banner photo: NeONBRAND (Unsplash)