Net-zero energy schools across the country are raising the bar for green building

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An energy kiosk at Wilde Lake Middle School provides real-time data on the school’s net-zero energy performance. Photo from the Executive Office of the Governor.

On his first tour of Wilde Lake Middle School in Colombia, Christopher Rattay watched a fleet of solar cars zoom up and down the sixth grade hallway. He would learn from the enthusiastic young drivers that they were built for a class project. The new principal knew immediately that Maryland’s first net-zero energy school was going to be a wild ride, that the $34 million facility, which opened in 2017, had the potential to be special, both as a learning lab and as a model for building schools .

“The [building] itself is beautiful and contributes to good health and emotional well-being,” said Rattay, who was impressed by the “open spaces and natural light” in the hallways, stairwells and classrooms.

Wilde Lake Middle School’s solar array includes 1,400 on the roof and another 600 on the ground. Screenshot from Howard County Public Schools.

“Net zero energy [means] Any electricity we use is electricity we produce ourselves, whether it’s our rooftop solar panels or those on campus,” said school resource teacher Doug Spicher. He said the blueprint also includes 112 geothermal wells to heat and cool the building, a large number of light and water sensors, and other conservation measures. Sunshades and coatings on the windows reduce the amount of sunlight entering the building so the classrooms don’t get stiflingly hot or cold, Spicher said.

The new school, completed in 2017, is almost 50% larger and uses 50% less energy than the building it replaced.

Wilde Lake can also accommodate 760 students, up from 500 in the previous building. Mariam Abimbola said she was “privileged” to be one of them. Now, as a junior, she said she frequently stopped by the energy kiosk in the lobby, which streamed real-time environmental data. “[The display] They looked at the electricity we used, the electricity we saved,” she said. “Before, we weren’t really aware of our energy use that we could really do better and change our habits at school and at home.”

Dan Lubeley, Director of Capital Planning and Construction for the Howard County Public School System, is following this data closely and is pleased with the results. “The building actually works better than expected,” he said. “It’s one less facility that might need to be factored into the operating budget because it produces enough energy. So it is not an additional cost.”

Schools are built to last 20 to 25 years without major renovations.

Lubeley said Wilde Lake offers valuable lessons. “School construction has always revolved around the basic concept that it must be sustainable, durable and maintainable,” he said. “In order to [in future projects] While we don’t use solar panels, that doesn’t mean we don’t consider the efficiency of our wall construction or other green design features.”

Green building, a government priority

In an average year, Maryland’s 24 school districts complete renovations or major maintenance on more than 200 of the state’s 1,400 pre-K12 public school buildings, according to Alex Donohue, assistant field director for the Maryland Interagency Commission on School Construction. which directs government building funds to each local school district.

“To give you a sense of the magnitude of this effort, the state has averaged about $400 million a year in school building projects,” Donohue said. The Built to Learn Act in 2021 added an additional $2.2 billion to that number over five years. “So it’s almost doubling, about $800 million a year going to school districts to invest in school facilities.”

School districts are advised, but not mandated, on how to use these funds.

“Green building is a state priority,” Donohue said. “State law requires that every new school facility and every complete renovation is a high performance building and meets stringent state and international building codes. I don’t think many states have taken stricter measures.”

While no new net-zero energy schools are currently under construction, Graceland Park/O’Donnell Heights Elementary/Middle School and Holabird Academy in Baltimore became the second and third such schools in Maryland in 2020.

The two buildings, which are close together, shared design plans and architects and leveraged a $5 million grant from the Maryland Energy Administration. “Significantly, Baltimore City found that they were able to build these very environmentally friendly, net-zero energy schools at a negligible cost premium over the average or standard cost for a non-zero energy building, which truly tells us that net Zero energy is not only achievable, it’s affordable,” said Donohue.

More Net Zero Schools Ahead?

A geothermal heating and cooling system regulates temperature at Wilde Lake Middle School, Maryland’s first net-zero energy school. Screenshot from Howard County Public Schools.

Earlier this year, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George), chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, introduced the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022, which calls for a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from levels of 2006 to 2030 and net zero carbon emissions by 2045.

“I think using public institutions, public policy as it affects government…is a good way to start changing people’s practices,” Pinsky said in an interview.

Pinsky said schools can play an important role, as buildings are responsible for nearly 39% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to a report by the World Green Building Council.

The climate law would also require at least one school built in every local school district to be net-zero by 2033. It will also establish a Net Zero School Grant Fund that would provide school districts with up to $3 million to cover the difference in cost of a Net Zero building.

“It’s actually going to make money for the school systems because they’re saving money that would normally be spent on energy bills. But we need some kind of incentive,” Pinsky said.

Lubeley, the Howard County school building director, said Wilde Lake is a jewel in the county and a beacon of change in Maryland.

“It showed [us] that … this is one possible direction that the state or the school system could take,” he said.

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