Reality Check: Are Net-Zero Schools Just an Illusion?

Net-zero schools describe buildings engineered to ultimately achieve zero energy costs. But despite the projected benefits, net-zero schools come with challenges. Net-zero status requires carbon-neutral emissions. District leaders need to address these challenges, know the benefits of a net-zero strategy and take the actions necessary to reach such goals.


Challenges to Achieving Net-Zero Schools

The dollar and environmental benefits are evident — net-zero schools use between 65 and 85 percent less energy than traditionally constructed schools. But to be successful, the basic structure and operating procedures of a net-zero school must differ significantly from those of a conventional school. Achieving net-zero emissions in an existing building requires significant investment in renovation and redesign — especially for America’s aging school building infrastructure. However, isn’t a district’s first step in reducing energy costs.

What Exactly Does Net-Zero Mean and How Does It Benefit School Districts?

Net-zero can be a confusing term. It is most frequently applied to the idea of a building or facility using only energy it generates on-site. This means a facility must have the means to produce enough energy to power all operations adequately, without relying on access to the power grid. However, unless a school owns its water system, it may be impossible to sever all ties to the existing utility grid. Meanwhile, wastewater still needs to be disposed of properly, so districts will need to scrutinize whether absolute net-zero status is actually possible.

All electrical needs could realistically reach net-zero levels in many districts, and in some cases, producing a surplus of electricity on-site to sell to utility grids could at least partially offset the costs of utilities outside of district control — e.g., drawing from an external water system.

The benefits of a net-zero school are immediate cost savings for the district and a reduced carbon footprint for future generations. Climate change is worsening, and the likelihood of a black swan weather events continues to grow. Working toward a sustainable, net-zero future is key to meeting budget deficits, lowering carbon emissions and encouraging better energy use behaviors among students and faculty.

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Schools use various strategies to achieve net-zero energy goals. They may retrofit facility assets with automated system controls (EMS or BAS) or occupancy sensors, or they may install photovoltaic panels to harvest solar energy. Districts across the country are working to tap into the value of renewable energy resources, but experts recommend first minimizing facility-wide energy consumption before investing in renewables. As the energy pyramid demonstrates, implementing energy conservation practices before investing in efficiency installations saves equipment costs and ultimately enhances the success of net-zero schools.

Billings Public Schools maximized the effectiveness of new solar installations by first reducing its energy needs thanks to implementing a comprehensive energy conservation program. Warren County Public Schools built the nation’s first Net-Zero school after implementing Cenergistic’s energy conservation program.

Implement the Programs Necessary to Achieve Net-Zero Schools Now

Net-zero schools are not an illusion. They are already here, and innovations in technology — especially cloud-based systems — enable schools to understand more about how energy is used and where to reduce consumption. Learn more about the results of energy conservation, including the potential for net-zero schools, by calling 1-855-798-7779 or contacting Cenergistic online.


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