Zero Energy Schools

Right now they are few, but the number of Zero Energy Schools is expected to skyrocket during the next two decades.

Beginning 2018, all new schools will have to be Near Zero Energy Buildings in the European Union. India and China are installing massive numbers of solar panels on the rooftops of thousands of their schools, something that doesn’t make them Energy Zero but is a great step towards that goal. The United States have already built a number of Net Zero Energy Schools and, beginning 2030, the California NZEB plan requires all new schools to be Energy Zero.

The importance of Zero Energy Schools

The importance of Zero Energy Schools is widely recognized. Schools and other buildings consume more than 40% of the world’s energy, that is, the building sector is – directly and indirectly – the main responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Besides, schools spend more on energy costs than on any other area, except personnel, and a Net Zero School doesn’t cost much more than a traditionally built school.

Zero Energy standards can increase construction costs (say, 10% or so), but these costs will be fully recovered in just a few years, with energy savings. Energy is one of the few expenses schools can reduce (to zero) without sacrificing educational quality.

Creating awareness

Building zero energy schools is also an excellent way of creating awareness. Schools are central to the communities they serve and a great place to teach the students and their parents and communities about energy conservation and renewable energy.

Design and features of Zero School Buildings

The design and the features of Zero Energy Buildings vary with climate and their size, but it doesn’t differ much from the guidelines and principles that can be applied to large buildings.

The fact that most schools are large buildings gives them a big advantage. Scale is critical to make solar and energy-efficient improvements cost-competitive.

Lady Bird Johnson Middle School (one of the first American Zero Energy Schools) has 12 wind turbines alongside, 105 geothermal heat pumps and almost 3,000 solar photovoltaic panels on roofs (they provide the largest part of the energy; wind turbines only produce 1% of the school’s power consumption).  

And it is this large-scale installation that makes renewable sources of energy cost-competitive (installing such elements on hundreds or thousands of schools would reduce costs even more).

Obviously, these green building features are just a part of any Zero Energy School. There are other important features involving the design, the windows (their efficiency, their size and location), the site, the layout, the shape of the building, the lighting system, the landscape (to avoid overheating and to help shade the windows, the Lady Bird Johnson Middle School – a Texan School... - uses a large, overhanging platform canopy on two sides).

These elements are critical to reduce energy consumption and to make the renewable systems smaller and more affordable. Energy conservation comes first.

Programs and sites with information on Zero Energy Schools

Here are a few links with information on Zero Energy Schools and related energy-efficiency issues:

Zemeds: promoting renovation of schools in European moderate climates up to Zero Energy Buildings standards
Building design and construction – Zero energy schools in the US
SOM P.S.62 Net Zero Energy School – Sustainable  Design  
Alliance to save energy: Power Save Campus Program, California
ASHRAE Advanced Energy Design Guides for K-12 Schools: Guides available for free download; tools for designers and contractors.
Better Buildings Challenge and Better Buildings Alliances: Open to Education Partners  
The Brian D. Robertson Memorial Solar Schools Fund  -  solar photovoltaic energy systems to K-12 schools  
The Center for Green Schools -  U.S. Green Building Council project to drive the transformation of all schools into sustainable buildings.
Collaborative for High Performance Schools: Resources to help schools design, construct and operate high-performance schools
North Carolina Solar Center: works with schools across the state to design and install photovoltaic systems on campus.

infographic house energyInfographics:
Architecture and construction schools: how our future depends on them
Messages that schools and teachers should spread
Schools are harming the environment
Why aren't schools installing solar panels on their roofs
Schools and teachers can help save the planet


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