How net-zero energy schools can turn a profit

Investing in net-zero energy school buildings can pay dividends to districts down the line.

The investment in the construction of net-zero energy school buildings pays dividends down the line, including the potential elimination of energy bills that can fluctuate greatly.

Since its first year of operation and continuing to today, nearly 10 years after opening its doors, the nation’s first net-zero energy school creates enough energy to make a profit. Richardsville Elementary School in Kentucky now sells energy back to the grid, netting its district an extra $30,000 per year. The school, part of Warren County Public Schools, cost $12.1 million to build. The prior elementary school’s energy bills totaled $72,000 per year, says district CFO Chris McIntyre.

“We don’t like to waste energy, and this sets the right image for our students,” McIntyre says.

Warren County opened a second net-zero elementary school in fall 2018, and McIntyre anticipates even larger energy savings and profits due to updated technology.

Limiting unpredictable expenses

Net-zero energy schools produce as much gas and electricity as they use over the course of the year. Some 35 verified net-zero energy education buildings now exist in North America, according to a March 2019 report from the nonprofit New Buildings Institute. Another 156 buildings aspire to net-zero energy status, but have not yet generated a full year of energy-use data.

“People are seeing that more schools are able to achieve it, so it’s looking a lot more realistic,” says Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools at the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently published a net-zero energy design guide to help districts and school designers through the process.

Net-zero energy schools typically use solar panels to create energy. Many also use geothermal heating and cooling, in which underground wells use the temperature of the earth to heat and cool the building.

Creating a net-zero energy school often requires developing a new site rather than retrofitting an old one, Heming says. While schools can make energy-efficient upgrades, it is too costly to change the design and run completely on renewable energy, she adds.

The cost to build a net-zero energy school varies widely depending on regional energy costs, construction costs and sunlight.

“Not having to pay energy bills is a huge weight off of a district’s shoulders, not only because of the expense, but the unpredictability of that expense over time,” Heming says.

Overcoming challenges in building net-zero energy schools

Wilde Lake Middle School, part of Howard County Public School System, opened in 2017 as the first net-zero energy school in Maryland.

The standard of energy use intensity for school energy use per square foot is 51, and the previous middle school building, built in 1969, had a score of 66. Today, with a score of 17, Wilde Lake is saving a lot of money, says Scott Washington, the district director of capital planning and construction. Data on total cost savings has not yet been collected.

The district received a state grant for nearly $2.8 million, and spent nearly $43 million of its own funds on the school, Washington says. “You have to have a long-range mindset, and know that you may pay more upfront for better operating costs down the road.”

Maintenance workers and teachers require training around system upkeep to ensure that the building performs to its full cost-saving potential, says Heming, of the U.S. Green Building Council.

“A net-zero energy school is not net-zero on its own,” Heming says. “It relies on the behavior of occupants as well.”

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