Renewable Energy Solutions

The nation’s heightened awareness regarding the importance of conserving natural resources continues to influence the design and operations of schools throughout the U.S. Today, through effective energy modeling, creative design strategies, sophisticated building systems and the introduction of new and emerging energy technologies, schools are becoming increasingly green and more efficient.

While the goal of optimizing energy efficiency once required such straightforward considerations as the orientation of the building on a site or the installation of high-performance HVAC systems and flexible lighting controls, the range of alternatives today is much more complex. Administrators must now consider a host of renewable energy options, from energy credits to the incorporation of advanced technologies. In order to address these considerations fully, it is important to consider the parameters of first-cost versus long-term life-cycle savings, the significance of meeting challenging environmental objectives and the potential to realize educational benefits as a part of the process.

First Steps: Energy Modeling
Before leaping into decisions about incorporating the latest in renewable energy technology, school districts seeking to realize energy savings should recognize the value of comprehensive energy modeling. To obtain a significant return on investment (ROI), critical steps include the following.

  1. Ensure that building designs, whether in new construction or through modernization, allow for optimum energy efficiency. This includes addressing building orientation, choice of materials, daylighting and design details with building performance and life-cycle value in mind.
  2. Next, invest in advanced equipment that will minimize the consumption of energy, and be certain that maintenance and operations staff members are trained to operate and monitor the facility to ensure optimum efficiency.
  3. Finally, explore options to offset the energy the building will consume through renewable energy sources.

With this sequence in mind, districts will enhance the efficiency of their buildings and obtain a higher ROI, whether they ultimately choose to invest in wind, solar, photovoltaic or other forms of renewable energy systems.

Going for Extra Credit
Once the foundation for energy-savings has been set through the incorporation of effective design and building systems, administrators should consider the many options for renewable energy. These include the use of renewable energy credits, wind power, solar thermal technology and photovoltaics.

Renewable Energy Credits
To learn more about renewable energy credits, visit Green-e’s Website. This organization has set the industry standard for renewable energy credits and has assembled a voluntary standard for low-impact power generation. The organization promotes use of such non-traditional sources as geothermal energy, methane gas to electricity and biomass fuel.

Through Green-e, organizations can become certified to work within the open power market — returning unused energy to the power grid. This type of investment sets an important example within communities, and can be a valuable learning tool for students.

Wind Power
The use of wind turbines is becoming more and more common across the country as a means of generating power. Space is a factor, as is average wind speed within a particular geographic region. (An average wind speed of 10 mph is considered a minimum for this option to be effective.) New, smaller turbines that are effective in less windy conditions are now entering the market, but more of these turbines are required to realize significant results.

Solar Thermal
The solar thermal alternative often represents the best value for many school districts. Solar thermal systems use heat from the sun to heat domestic water. This approach can be very effective for buildings that require hot water during the day, but not necessarily through the night — such as schools. Kitchens typically use the most hot water in a school so a cost-effective strategy may be to provide a system sized for this demand. These systems work with traditional water heaters and are also effective at pre-heating incoming cold water and reducing the total amount of energy consumed.

Photovoltaic technology, which generates power from sunlight, is still the most expensive first-cost option for renewable energy. Striking an effective balance is important, and districts need to weigh issues such as the cost of the power cells, storage of power in batteries and the cost of power that would still need to be purchased. Options include designing facilities for future installation of photovoltaics.

Educational Benefits
In the past, life-cycle costs that encompass operations and maintenance have been viewed apart from the initial design and construction investment. With today’s sustainable strategies now clearly impacting life-cycle value, districts need to consider this aspect early on as a crucial component in the planning and design process.

Administrators should also consider that a focus on the environment, including renewable energy strategies, is now integral to the educational curriculum for students of all ages.  Today’s students expect to explore environmental studies in detail through engaging, interactive programs. Energy conservation can and should be built into the curriculum, along with hands-on activities that involve energy monitoring and the study of emerging technologies. It’s never too early to begin introducing the concept of sustainability and conservation to the next generation.

Terry Liette is a principal and the executive director of engineering with Fanning Howey Associates. Ian Hadden is client liaison for engineering and sustainable design for the firm.

About the Authors

Terrance R. Liette, PE, LEED-AP, is the director of Engineering for Fanning Howey. Under his direction, Fanning Howey has become the first architecture/engineering firm to receive the ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year - Sustained Excellence Award. Terry has overseen the design of 39 K-12 schools achieving Designed to Earn the ENERGY STAR certification.