There are 125,000 schools in the U.S., prekindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12), spending $8 billion annually on energy, more than on computers and textbooks combined. Schools are investing in energy efficiency and solar, often creating a better learning environment as energy costs are brought under control.
The stakes are far bigger than $8 billion. The DOE estimates that K-12 schools have a deferred maintenance backlog of $254 billion. Much of this should include efficiency and clean energy infrastructure upgrades. The best schools are using energy and financial innovation to upgrade their buildings, lighting, and generation of their own energy to save money and avoid upfront capex.
In a typical school building, 30 percent of energy is for lighting. LED lighting uses only a fraction of the energy of older lights. Add low-cost sensors and controls, and lights are automatically turned-off when no one is present. Design classrooms to make good use of natural light and students learn more, have less behavioral issues, and use less electricity. Studies have documented up to 26 percent test improvements in natural daylight environments.
Heating and cooling demand 35 percent of energy in a typical school. More schools, like Hawai’i Preparatory, use good passive design to orient the building for warmth in winter and cooling for hot days, and make best use of natural ventilation. HVAC demands are minimal in buildings with well insulated walls, roofs, and windows. With ground source heat exchange, HVAC can often be eliminated.
Many states have rebates and programs for schools to improve efficiency. California K-12 schools reap the benefits of Proposition 39, legislation included in the California Clean Energy Jobs Act, which is providing billions to schools. Other states have use similar programs: SCORE Program in Texas, Tennessee’s Energy Efficient Schools Council, and the High Performance Green Schools Planning State Grant Program of Pennsylvania. Colorado schools save millions with utility demand side management programs.
The Gordon-Rushville Public School District in Nebraska has a $5.8 million Energy Savings Performance Contract (ESPC) with Ameresco that upgraded energy efficiency at a high school, middle school, and elementary school. Aging HVAC was replaced with efficient HVAC and ground source heat pumps, efficient dual pane windows, LED lighting, and good old fashion fixing of roofs and heat leaks. The project was made possible by special state funding, a $2.5 million tax exempt bond, and reduction of capex from the ESPC contract.
About 5,500 US K-12 schools have solar systems totaling one gigawatt of generating capacity, details Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools, a report from the SEIA. Adding solar is a no-brainer in sunny states like California, Arizona, and Nevada, but it is also widely adopted in states with high electricity costs and progressive policies like New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
The 60-page report details the solar schools and how they handle budget and finance issues. Power purchase agreements (PPA) are the primary financing method, representing about 90 percent of all installed school solar systems. For example, Broadalbin-Perth Central School District, New York, is using a PPA for a 2 MW offsite solar array that is projected to save $5.3 million over a 25-year period. Kern High School District in California installed a 22.7 MW SunPower solar parking at 27 sites using a PPA and projects 25-year savings at $80 million.
Schools are incorporating solar into their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. For example, in Arlington, Virginia, the Discovery Elementary school is zero net energy, generating all of its energy consumption needs with 495 kW solar PV, solar thermal hot water, and geothermal heat exchange instead of traditional HVAC. The school’s net-zero design is part of the school’s interactive curriculum. Each fifth-grade student is required to complete a research project on a specific design aspect of the school. At the end of the year, the students are able to lead tours of the building for school visitors.
By combining energy efficiency and solar, schools may eventually save billions that can go to better classrooms, more teachers and aids, and better learning.
These clean energy advances have not only started with school district energy experts, they have started with city management, parents, and even students. Budget and capex concerns are alleviated with PPA and service agreements. You might even take the lead at your local school.
John Addison writes about how technology is sustainably transforming energy, mobility and cities. He is the author of Revenue Rocket and Save Gas, Save the Planet.