Energy Efficiency and Solar in the $8 Billion School Energy Market
Who will you meet?
Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.
There are 125,000 schools in the U.S., pre-kindergarten 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 smart and efficient new buildings, efficiency retrofits, 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 capital expenditure (capex).
Smart and efficient buildings are having a big impact. In a typical school building, 30 percent of energy is for lighting. LED lighting uses only a fraction of the energy of older lights. Using the internet of things (IoT), lights can be automatically turned off when a network of low-cost sensors detects that a room is empty. Classrooms designed to make good use of natural light help students learn more, have fewer 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. 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. Using the flood of low cost sensor to the market, the IoT can enable greater savings by automatically adjusting temperature based on the presence or absence of people.
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 of dollars to schools. Other states have used similar programs: the 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. Performance contracts can be considered a form of public-private partnership where the public school avoids the capital investment and the private firm shares in the savings.
The Great Recession hit schools hard. West Sonoma County Union High School District had to cut the jobs of 10 percent of teachers and 32 percent of staff, while spending more on rising energy costs. Now they are saving $9 million over 25 years after installing 834 kW of solar car ports, with RGS Energy installing SunPower panels to meet 75 percent of all electricity demands at three high schools.
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 installed at schools, and how each district has handled 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 24.5 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 capital expenditure concerns are alleviated with PPA and service agreements. You might even take the lead at your local school.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Why one city decays and another thrives can sometimes seem random. So, trying to foresee downrange why the future will happen in City A and not City B is hard. Moreover, to imagine that there is one formula that all 7.8 billion of us should adhere to, wherever it is we live, is clearly nonsensical.
In our work, we study, research, and rank places to determine what the best practices are to increase economic prosperity, social equity, and quality of life. Ultimately, the question we want to answer is: What is it that makes a city a place of the future? In our research, one thing has become clear to us: next-gen talent is the fuel for the future of place. And by extension, jobs of the future will happen in places of the future.
Digital twins and AI analysis would offer significant benefits to organizations across all sectors. By providing a comprehensive look at a geographical area and its infrastructure and assets, these technologies will enable smarter and more targeted field planning optimization. It could help digitize field surveys, offer new levels of remote engineering access, and enable contact tracing around COVID-19.
The focus will continue to shift away from the data itself and towards its relationships. The connections between data are where the most powerful insights lie. With enough data points, organizations can look to analytics to better understand the context and “see” the future.
AI at scale and emerging data technologies truly illustrate this connectivity and potential. Although it’s an emerging field, the benefits are limitless.
In my business, we’d rather not be right. What gets a climate change expert out of bed in the morning is the desire to provide decision-makers with the best available science, and at the end of the day we go to bed hoping things won’t actually get as bad as our science tells us. That’s true whether you’re a physical or a social scientist.
Well, I’m one of the latter and Meeting of the Minds thought it would be valuable to republish an article I penned in January 2020. In that ancient past, only the most studious of news observers had heard of a virus in Wuhan, China, that was causing a lethal disease. Two months later we were in lockdown, all over the world, and while things have improved a lot in the US since November 2020, in many cities and nations around the world this is not the case. India is living through a COVID nightmare of untold proportions as we speak, and many nations have gone through wave after wave of this pandemic. The end is not in sight. It is not over. Not by a longshot.
And while the pandemic is raging, sea level continues to rise, heatwaves are killing people in one hemisphere or the other, droughts have devastated farmers, floods sent people fleeing to disaster shelters that are not the save havens we once thought them to be, wildfires consumed forests and all too many homes, and emissions dipped temporarily only to shoot up again as we try to go “back to normal.”
So, I’ll say another one of those things I wish I’ll be wrong about, but probably won’t: there is no “back to normal.” Not with climate change in an interdependent world.