Energy Efficiency and Solar in the $8 Billion School Energy Market
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
Since historically marginalized communities are already being disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I am frustrated to see these communities also negatively impacted by the lack of on-the-ground public engagement. While I realize the threat of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions make conducting on-the-ground public engagement challenging, I want to encourage fellow planners to think more creatively. I will admit that I struggled to think creatively when I first heard that Clackamas Community College (CCC) would continue having mostly online classes in Spring Term 2021. CCC has had mostly online classes since the end of Winter Term 2020 when COVID-19 first started impacting Oregon. CCC’s decision about Spring Term 2021 became more stressful when Clackamas County staff told me that public outreach for their new shuttles could not be delayed until next summer.
A new toolkit has been developed to help businesses think through strategies to decrease mobility barriers to the workplace, which reduces turnover. When workers can reliably get to work regardless of their personal circumstances, it provides employment stability and the opportunity to build wealth. It’s a win-win. Developed through a partnership between Metropolitan Planning Council and a pro bono Boston Consulting Group team, the toolkit includes slide decks, an overview report, customizable templates, a cost calculator, and instructional videos walking a company through the thought process of establishing a baseline situation, evaluating and selecting a solution, and standing up a program.
Depending on the employer’s location and employees’ needs, solutions may range from helping with last-mile transportation to the transit system, to developing on-demand vanpools, to establishing in-house carpool matching systems. The ROI calculator gives employers the ability to determine the break-even cost—the subsidy amount a company can manage without hurting the bottom line.
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.