Zero Energy Spurs STEM Programs in K-12 Schools

The education sector, particularly K-12 schools, has seen a rapid rise in the uptake of zero energy design with many school districts committing to zero energy performance goals for deep retrofits and future new construction projects. Zero energy schools are extremely energy efficient buildings that produce enough energy onsite to meet annual consumption needs through a combination of innovative design strategies, efficient technologies, improvements in management, and renewable energy sources. School districts have also increasingly found that the technologies featured in these advanced buildings serve as a natural conduit to making science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) more engaging for the student body.

Zero Energy Schools Accelerator

The Department of Energy (DOE) launched the Zero Energy Schools Accelerator to support school districts, like Horry County in South Carolina, break down barriers to achieving zero energy through technical assistance in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and solutions oriented peer exchange. K-12 schools have been champions of energy efficiency, however, achieving zero energy requires a significant amount of technical wherewithal, proper tools, and guidance resources. To this end, the recently published Technical Feasibility Study for Zero Energy K-12 Schools provides technical support to show that K-12 schools are capable of achieving zero energy within the construction budget of a conventional school across all U.S. climate zones with today’s technologies.

Strategic High-performance Design

The Horry County Schools (HCS) system is the third largest in South Carolina with 56 schools accommodating over 44,000 students. HCS is fast growing, so its school board has developed a strategic 10-year plan to develop facilities based on increasing student numbers with an emphasis on utilizing emerging green design and energy reduction systems.

“HCS desired an efficient, high performance school that was energy positive and provided a collaborative learning environment.  The high performance goal was to reduce the long term energy consumption for the building while the energy positive aspect logically followed as the right thing to do,” according to Mark Koll, HCS Coordinator of Design, Engineering, and Sustainability. “The energy positive component was a result of reducing the energy demands of the building and providing PV panels to generate electricity which is both used in the building and sold to the local utility.  Ultimately, the schools do the right thing for our environment and communities.”

The education sector consumes over 2,000 trillion BTUs of energy per year meaning that savings across a district could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars that can go back into the classroom, or building infrastructure. After visiting a few high-performance schools in Texas and learning about new teacher and student oriented designs, HCS school board members were impressed with the associated long-term savings costs and decided to work towards energy positive design for the construction of five new schools.

​“Our new zero energy schools are not only outstanding facilities to learn in but are also learning tools.  Students have the opportunity to participate in clubs that focus on the building systems, including energy saving features,” says Greg Sponseller, HCS Sustainability Analyst. “These students learn about the solar arrays, daylight harvesting, and geothermal systems, actually see how this system works in their building, and then teach other students about them through videos, presentations, and tours.  We want these students to be the building experts and understand the impact of the built environment on our communities and our planet.”

Zero energy schools provide students interactive opportunities to explore energy and sustainability, like through the Energy Wise educational program being implemented at the new zero energy schools in Horry County. Energy Wise clubs are composed of 10-15 students that meet regularly to discuss the green aspects of buildings. Students work with teachers and facilities staff to track energy data, perform plug load studies, and to educate the broader community about energy usage and conservation. Energy monitoring activities center on each schools energy dashboard, which pulls data directly from meters tied to the building automation systems. Learning from the energy dashboard aligns with HCS’s overall strategic goal of providing students technology-based education programs that put learning into action, while deepening their understanding of renewable energy production and real-time electricity consumption.

To learn more, visit the Zero Energy Buildings Resource Hub.