Educational Sector Leads on Zero Energy Buildings, but Lacks Retrofits

New research by NBI looks at the reasons why existing schools don’t aim for zero.

New Buildings Institute (NBI) recently released its Zero Energy* Buildings List with nearly 500 verified or emerging commercial buildings projects. Educational facilities continue to outpace other sectors by large margins with 26 verified zero energy (ZE) projects and 152 more underway. However, there is one metric where schools lag: no existing school in North America has been retrofit to zero energy performance.

To better understand how existing schools could transition to zero energy, NBI completed a deep dive market study into the decision making patterns and funding sources in the K-12 and community college school market. Not surprisingly, the findings from our research confirm that educational outcomes are the primary driver for decision makers in the school market. Not only is energy overlooked as a priority, it is often not called out in key plans and policies like the Facilities Master Plan or Owners Program Requirements that guide school construction, modernization, and building retrofits.

Our findings and recommendations are based on market research recently completed for the California Public Utilities Commission, the California K-12 and Community College ZNE Retrofit Readiness Study, which describes how the school market functions, summarizes a technical feasibility study in existing schools, explains the market barriers and provides recommendations for school districts, utility program administrators, and other stakeholders. The research was also expanded nationwide through partnerships with the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools and the U.S. DOE’s Zero Energy School Accelerator program to offer a nationwide perspective on barriers and actions needed to overcome them.

While it won’t be easy, a concerted and focused approach can increase the adoption of energy efficiency in schools. Increasing stakeholder awareness is an important first step. For example, school board members are key decision makers, yet many are not aware of the health and learning benefits of high performance, zero energy schools. For example, in the Newcastle Elementary School District, Superintendent Denny Rush commented that “initially, we were more interested in the cost savings, but as we became more involved in the process, the long-term impact and benefit of ZNE to student health and educational outcomes became clearer.”

A move toward influencing the plans, policies and practices that impact energy consumption in schools is critical in the transition of existing K-12 schools to zero energy. One practical first step is benchmarking. The next is to strategically use this information to remotely diagnose and prioritize opportunities across the school district’s portfolio. Then, limited dollars can be used to conduct targeted building assessments and develop specific plans for energy upgrades that support student performance. The aim is to weave energy efficiency into how these buildings are operated and modernized as well as how they can be used to increase student performance and the environmental literacy of the next generation of students.

At the Newcastle school district, Superintendent Rush explains that, “energy will play a much greater role in the five-year facilities plan than it would have before the zero energy retrofit.” This is exactly the approach that districts across the country can take moving forward.

*For the purposes of the NBI Zero Energy Buildings List, zero energy (ZE) is defined as ultra-low energy buildings that consumer only as much energy as is produced onsite through renewable resources. We know there are many more projects that achieve efficiency levels on par with ZE buildings, but that don’t take the final step of renewables.

Amy Cortese, Director