DOE Looking to “Accelerate” the Market for Zero Energy Schools

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Better Buildings program launched a Zero Energy Schools Accelerator program last month among program partners, media, school officials and others at the new Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. The school is a model for what DOE is working to create among districts across the country: high efficiency school buildings that use only as much energy as can be produced onsite through clean, renewable energy. A tour of the stunning school building and grounds demonstrated the impact a “zero energy” school can have on teachers, students and the larger community.

According to NBI’s 2016 Getting to Zero Building List, Discovery Elementary is one of 61 verified or emerging zero energy schools in the United States. With features such as 2,000 solar panels, LED lighting, and a geothermal well under the school playing fields, energy expenses for this school are expected to be roughly $72,000 a year. A school of similar size has approximately $120,000 in annual energy costs. The money saved can be returned to the school district’s operating budget, allowing for reinvestment back into the school and student education.

Improved lighting and natural ventilation make spaces more comfortable and conducive to learning. Spaces are also more inclusive overall to all learning styles as they can mold and change to fit different lessons and daily activities. These classrooms become engagement opportunities themselves by utilizing the school’s energy dashboard for curriculum and hands on learning. Each grade level has a different theme which through the years as students grow, they not only expand their knowledge but expand their understanding of our world from backyard adventurers in kindergarten to the solar system in fifth grade. The school even has a slide from the 2nd to the 1st floor!

With the goal of making zero energy K-12 schools “more mainstream,” the DOE Accelerator recruits partner districts and states that agree to develop their own ZNE plans within a year and commit to new construction projects or renovation plans that result in substantial savings. K-12 schools present a particularly dynamic case for accelerating the market transformation to zero energy buildings as these projects are replicable and the benefits highly visible as to communities as successful, feasible examples of zero energy design. DOE expects that participating districts will demonstrate to other school officials what can be done and how. Through programs like this from the DOE, schools have the potential to save 65-80% in energy use compared to conventionally constructed schools, depending on their climate zone.

The first participating school districts in the DOE program include:
Hermosa Beach City School District (Hermosa Beach, California)

LA Unified School District (Los Angeles, California)

Arlington School District (Arlington, Virginia)

Boulder Valley School District (Boulder, Colorado)

Adams 12 – Five Star Schools (Thornton, Colorado)

Douglas County School District (Douglas County, Colorado)

State of Minnesota Schools

State of California Schools

For more information on the DOE Schools Accelerator program, please visit the DOE Schools Accelerator website or review the factsheet.


Reilly Loveland, Project Analyst


Better Buildings Accelerators are part of the broader Better Buildings Initiative which aims to make commercial, public, industrial and residential buildings 20 percent more energy efficient over the next decade. Through Better Buildings, public and private sector organizations across the country are working together to share and replicate successful strategies to drive energy efficiency. This means saving billions of dollars on energy bills, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating thousands of jobs.