American schools spend more on electricity and natural gas than on textbooks and computers, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. However, schools can change that equation and save millions by going “net zero” through a combination of efficiency and onsite renewable energy, such as solar, to produce more energy than is used in a year.
It is already happening in Virginia at the Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, which also happens to be one of the nation’s largest net zero buildings of any kind. Not only is Discovery saving the district money now, but it also saved them money during construction and will save money every year going forward. The district’s budget for the school was $36 million, but the architect realized they could create a “net zero ready” building for $30.7 million.
Discovery is part of a trend across the United States, and 2016 was a big year for net zero K-12 schools, according to the New Buildings Institute. In fact, 38% percent of the 332 “verified” and “emerging” net zero building projects last year were K-12 schools.
Why? Because schools are a good fit for net zero projects. They have predictable and relatively constant energy demand; they have large roofs suitable for solar panels and districts have a long-term interest in reducing energy costs; and they possess bonding authority for big projects, according to the New Buildings Institute.
In addition to saving money, a school’s sustainable features can become fodder for teaching students about energy, technology and the environment. The Solar Lab at Discovery Elementary, for example, allows students to interact with the school’s rooftop electric and water systems. The school has a custom-made dashboard that tracks the energy production, energy consumption and the net of those two numbers. Students can access the dashboard in real-time from any school computer and view it on a large-screen TV in the entrance lobby or in solar lab.
The Discovery dashboard consistently shows good news. Since it opened in Fall 2015, the energy return has exceeded expectations. Even the winter months ran net positive. This year, the school is expected to save the district some $80,000 in power bills (compared to the typical Arlington elementary), and that number is likely only to get better.
Districts across the Commonwealth could learn from Arlington and Discovery Elementary, as well as from other states, which are making net zero schools a priority. From every angle – education, budgets, resiliency and sustainability – net zero schools should be a priority for Virginia too.