Net Zero Design for Schools to Combat Rising Energy Costs

By Ryan Strandquest

Achieving net zero is not an easy feat. The current state of educational institutions is more aptly described as approaching net zero. Washington, Oregon, and California are much closer to net zero due to statewide incentives and mandates, coupled with the increased rates of utilities in these states. Florida and other states are still far behind. This might seem rather strange, considering that Florida, the Sunshine State, is blessed with ample energy from the sun. However, in 2021, Florida generated just 6% of its power from renewable sources such as solar, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But as paltry as that might seem, Florida actually ranks very high out of all states—number four—in renewable energy and solar energy.

Furthermore, Florida has much lower energy costs and has moved more slowly towards net zero because the economics are not in place to encourage more investment to improve power use—and, thus, reduce CO2 emissions.  When facilities look at the costs of wind and solar energy, new technologies around mechanical and lighting systems, and redesign or retrofit of a facility, the return on investment is often many years away. Government incentives can help, especially as energy costs play a major part in operational expenses.

Net zero is defined as carbon neutrality, meaning the amount of greenhouse gases (CO2 being most impactful) produced by a facility is brought to zero by reducing emissions or methods to absorb greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases are the leading cause of our planet's global warming. Reducing, eliminating, and absorbing greenhouse gases will slow or potentially reverse global warming. Driven by rising energy costs, government mandates, long-term cost savings, and simply doing the right thing for future generations, schools are increasingly turning to engineers and architects to move towards net zero energy consumption using various renewable energy sources and new technologies.

One sector where net zero has received increasing attention is in the educational sphere. Indeed, much of the push toward net zero in school construction focuses specifically on solar energy—perhaps partially pushed by the younger generations’ increasing knowledge about environmental sustainability. Just one example can be seen in a recent deal in which Durham Public Schools in North Carolina is party to a triumvirate of customers of Duke Energy’s Green Source Advantage (GSA) program to purchase nearly 35 megawatts (MW) of solar energy in the state. Elsewhere, Maryland’s extensive Prince George’s County Public Schools district, located just outside Washington, D.C., has committed to being entirely carbon-neutral by 2040. The district has already installed some solar panels on some of its schools, yet much more needs to be done at the state level. Accordingly, a bill before the Maryland General Assembly seeks to encourage extensive solar energy usage in future construction. This political tightrope is possible thanks to the bill’s not requiring a mandate from the state government in Annapolis.

However, increasingly, such government mandates are driving more demand for a move toward net zero. But it’s a mix of mandates and incentives that provide schools with dollar-driven initiatives to improve their renewable power generation and reduction of greenhouse gases. Higher education institutions are often in the business of making money, and profits will guide their choices to invest in solar technologies that reduce or offset CO2 emissions. It is truly a business decision for many of these institutions, and if the numbers are not in their favor, they will often forego such investment. Even a basic 5-kilowatt system costs between $15,000 and $25,000 to install without any government incentives or tax credits, according to the Center for Sustainable Energy. When that is scaled up, the costs begin to look rather daunting.

Increasing energy costs are driving educational institutions to look toward new sources of power. Heating and cooling costs constitute a substantial portion of operational budgets, with some estimates putting these costs at nearly 50% of all operating expenses. Building envelopes have been a focus when efficient designs are planned and implemented. Substantial heating or cooling loss via a leaky building envelope can exacerbate costs. Engineers must think creatively about ways to solve this problem because rebuilding or remodeling a facility is often not in the cards. Wind and solar can help offset the loss of climate control by providing needed power to run HVAC systems if schools are in areas to take advantage of the fuel these require, wind and sunlight.

Thanks to new motor technologies (ECM motors) and thermal energy storage (TES) technologies, engineers are finding ways to utilize incentives to address HVAC costs with a much more rapid return on investment (ROI). One example in Flagler County, Fla., is the Flagler-Palm Coast HS CEP renovation project, which will have a new 1,050-ton, air-cooled, 36 Calmac ice storage tank central energy plant added to provide chilled water to a multi-building campus totaling 308,300 SF. The solution will provide a 4.3-year ROI, 12,964 metric tons per year of CO2e reduction, a 5,487,065 gallon annual water reduction, and an Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) 48 Investment Tax Credit of between $200,000 and $400,000. Lighting technologies are helping reduce energy usage for schools, as well. LED lighting systems that are controlled and provide automated on/off mechanisms reduce electrical use while also cutting down on heat production, a byproduct of traditional incandescent bulbs.

Many in the education sector talk about net zero. However, it is a long way off for most. Incentives can help drive investment and states providing these continue to be ahead of the curve. Building technologies have advanced, and they will continue to do so. Creative solutions can help speed the path to net zero, and forward-thinking engineers and architects are leading the charge to offer solutions that make good sense now and sound returns in the future. While it is the right thing to do for the future of our schools, our children, and their children, investment must make sound economic sense for schools to be willing to rebuild or retrofit facilities.

Ryan Strandquest LEED AP is the President of Matern Professional Engineering. He may be reached at [email protected].