5 Must Haves to Achieve High Marks in Ultra-low Energy Schools

An increasing number of school districts are investing in ultra-low energy facilities and renewables as a way to save on utility costs and create healthier and more productive learning environments for students and staff. In fact, over 219 school buildings across the United States and Canada are working to achieve the highest levels of energy performance, according to a new Zero Energy Schools Watchlist released by NBI last month. Of those projects, 191 buildings have verified zero energy performance or are working toward that goal meaning they have added renewable generation at the site and consume only as much energy as is produced by those energy resources, typically photovoltaics, over the course of a year.

Ultra-low energy and zero energy school buildings are highly energy efficient with key features including integrated daylighting and advanced electric lighting designs, high performance heating and cooling systems and best practice building envelope and ventilation strategies. While getting to zero energy is a realistic end game, achieving sustainable, ultra-low energy schools, and the benefits that go along with them, takes time to accomplish. However, school districts can start down the path to zero by taking these proven five steps:

1. Benchmark your school district’s building portfolio.

Understanding where you are in terms of energy use in a building portfolio is an important starting point for planning and prioritizing future efficiency upgrades that will cost-effectively reach high performance energy goals. Committing to benchmarking means conducting an ongoing review of a school district’s energy consumption to determine if your building portfolio’s energy performance is improving or not. Reporting this information to key stakeholders on a regular basis will help maintain support for energy efficiency measures.

When setting out to collect energy consumption data, aim to collect at least two to three years of monthly energy consumption. Useful tools include ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, online data tracking, or simply using Microsoft Excel. To learn more about benchmarking, watch this NBI webinar: ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager Step-by-Step.

2. Establish goals for energy reduction, including energy use intensity (EUI) targets.

Instead of “percent better than code” goals, zero energy projects use an absolute energy target called an Energy Use Intensity (EUI). It’s calculated by dividing the total energy consumed by the building in one year (measured in kBtu) by the total gross floor area of the building. Site EUI targets vary slightly depending on building type and climate, and for K-12 schools they range from 16 to 24 kBtu per square foot per year. EUI’s are impacted by building design characteristics such as the building shell and location, energized systems such as HVAC and lighting, and human systems such as behavior and schedules. Achieving the requisite EUI in educational buildings may seem challenging, especially in existing buildings, but, a growing set of examples are coming on line. NBI has been collecting case studies of school buildings to share these lessons.

3. Gain stakeholder support to develop and implement policies, plans and practices.

Benchmarking data is a powerful tool for getting stakeholder support for activities that lead to continuous improvement toward ultra-low and zero energy performance. School decision makers are most interested in educational outcomes, so highlighting how the facility performance is connected to student learning is critical to gaining support. Check out NBI’s Zero Energy School Stakeholder Engagement and Messaging Guide—a free resource to help users convey the value of zero energy design and construction to decision makers. The guide helps with identifying key stakeholders and drivers. And it provides overarching messaging with supporting facts about why ultra-low and zero energy makes sense—from lowering energy costs, increasing student performance, improving comfort, and providing hands-on learning opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (STEAM).

School districts can establish a framework that encourages people to consider energy use in practices. They can expand upon early benchmarking activities to prioritize project assessments and eventual completion. Incorporating energy targets into Requests for Proposals and Owners Project Requirements and contracts are ways school districts can put design and construction teams on notice about their goals. Some districts are even using “performance based procurement” approaches that contractually obligate a design team to meet a defined energy target.

4. Leverage all upgrades so they continue down the path towards zero energy.

Districts must be intentional about integrating energy considerations into all projects, ensuring that every investment made in facilities is consistent with its goal to achieve ultra-low and zero energy campuses.

In a recent schools market characterization study, conducted by NBI for the California investor-owned utilities, we found that significant improvements in energy performance (more than 50%) are possible for all types of schools, no matter what climate zone or when the original building was built. We also found that while LED lighting improvements are a key part of these savings, the bulk of the savings in deep energy retrofits actually came from HVAC system selection.

Performance Based OutcomesThe research suggests that the appropriate sequencing of energy retrofits is a critical consideration. This means districts should strive to reduce building loads through envelope sealing, lighting and plug load measures before replacing HVAC systems if possible.

This can allow for the installation of smaller systems, reducing first costs. Another important finding is that attention to operations is critical, because simply operating systems longer than expected resulted in at least 10% more energy consumption.

5. Don’t go it alone.

Some decision makers and school district staff are leery of the cost and the time required to incorporate low-energy and zero energy goals into future building projects and retrofits. However, our research shows that these educational buildings are entirely feasible today. In fact, we see dozens of examples of districts around the country well on their way to zero energy. Districts can leverage many available resources to manage their costs and to ensure quality. For districts just getting started, NBI’s Getting to Zero in Schools Resource Hub contains an extensive free library of templates, tools and research aimed at school districts working toward getting to zero in design, construction and operation. Look for local examples of schools, libraries and other similar building types, take tours and speak with design teams and facilities managers about their experiences, and form a working group to study options and maximize opportunities.

Zero energy schools have the potential to teach students about energy and buildings, and to show them that while we need the ability to produce energy, we also need to be wise about using the energy we have. Helping students imagine and be part of the design process for a school building that actually generates as much energy as it uses can be a powerful tool. NBI leads districts through design charettes with stakeholders, delivers customized support for districts, hosts regular webinars to share lessons learned, and connects districts with others that have already started down the path to zero energy.

Contact Amy Cortese, Director of Programs, to learn more.