California Schools Have a Lot to Teach Us About Zero Net Energy

Congratulations are in order for nine innovative school districts, iconic projects and leading-edge designers and firms that were honored last month with a ZNE School Leadership Award. These were notably the first non-residential zero net energy (ZNE) awards in the country and were presented during the California Green Schools and Community Colleges Summit in Pasadena.

ZNE is a relatively new concept in the energy efficiency world—a building that produces as much energy through clean, onsite renewable resources as it consumes over the course of a year. But the trend is growing especially in places like California that provide supportive policy leadership, technical expertise and financial incentives. There’s no better demonstration of the feasibility and potential for ZNE than in California schools. The Golden State is first in the nation in efforts to transform K-12 schools, community colleges as well as higher education institutions to ZNE performance with 62 projects either under construction or currently in operation.  A number of these examples have been chronicled in five new case studies of verified and existing ZNE projects.

To recognize early innovation and leadership in this market, the nine inaugural awards were given on behalf of the California Investor-owned Utilities Prop 39 ZNE School Pilot Program. The awards showcase the changemakers who are driving this new standard for school environments. Industry leaders judged applications based on demonstrated achievement that a project has attained or is on track to achieve ZNE performance. They also ranked people, projects or policies that provide leadership and a replicable model for others to learn from.

Award winners include two visionary school districts: Oakland Unified School District and San Diego Unified School District were honored for successful programs resulting from formal commitments of their governing boards to zero net energy and high performance building goals.

Honors went to outstanding projects including the Stevens Library at Sacred Heart Elementary School and Los Angeles Harbor College Science Complex. The Sacred Heart library is a “net positive” energy building, meaning it produces more energy through onsite renewables than it consumes, and was the first U.S. library to achieve the International Living Future Institute’s Net Zero Energy Certification. The Los Angeles Harbor College building is also on track for a net positive performance and worked in the design process to strike a balance between individual, building, campus and community needs.

Individual leadership recognition went to two design luminaries: John Diffenderfer of Aedis Architects and David Kaneda of Integral Group. Both advanced designers have led a number of ZNE school campus projects in California.

Three leading firms were recognized for leadership in ZNE buildings. EHDD Architects, Integral Group and Point Energy Innovations have driven momentum in high performance schools and provided expertise for supporting programs that advance ZNE goals including the AIA 2030 Challenge and the California Department of the State Architect’s 7x7x7 program.

But, these ZNE leadership honors are just one part of the story. In addition to the awards program, the Proposition 39 ZNE Schools Retrofit Pilot program is supporting market transformation toward ZNE with trainings—12 were held for school business managers, designers and others over the last year. These session are helping to build knowledge among critical audiences about how to design, finance and manage ZNE schools. The program also funded the development of the new ZNE school case studies and is supporting pilot projects around the state offering technical and financial resources to ease the way for school renovation projects.

The growing population of ZNE schools in California have a lot to teach us about the future vision for the built environment. Saving some of the $8 billion schools spend each year on energy will undoubtedly provide financial resources that can be used in the classroom for the benefit of students and teachers in California and nationally.

Stacey Hobart, Marketing + Communications Director