Net-Zero School Pays Off : Richardsville Elementary setting standard with its electricity generation
There’s no big smokestack. You also don’t see a bunch of workers scurrying around in hard hats. Rest assured though, Warren County Public Schools has a power plant.
The district received a check for $37,227.31 this year. The Tennessee Valley Authority paid the school district for electricity it generated. The school district doesn’t have a power plant, per se, like the utility company. But it does have an energy producer, the first “net-zero” school in the nation: Richardsville Elementary School.
The check is tangible evidence that net-zero pays for itself and then some.
“It has exceeded expectations. We’re seeing a savings of millions of dollars in energy costs,” state Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, said of the net-zero schools concept developing across the nation.
In talking this past week with officials from the nation’s capital to the Pacific Northwest, they agree Richardsville Elementary is still the only major school building in the United States that is not only net-zero, but that also actually earns money from its electricity generation.
“That’s net-positive,” said Paul Hutton of Hutton Architecture Studio, a member of Cuningham Group Architecture Inc. in Denver.
Hutton has worked with “green schools” since 1982. Green schools have environmentally friendly features. Hutton said it is good that Warren County has been able to work with the TVA on energy generation, and that’s a benefit to local schools. In other parts of the country, a utility wouldn’t send an actual check to a school district for electricity generation by a school’s solar panels, he said.
The $12.1 million, 550-student, 77,466-square-foot Richardsville school generates as much clean energy with solar panels as it consumes in natural energy. The development of schools that generate more energy than they use is turning heads in the public school construction business, according to Kenny Stanfield, architect for Sherman, Carter, Barnhart of Louisville.
“That opens up some eyes,” Stanfield said. He has been a national leader in design of the net-zero schools. Stanfield holds up Richardsville to an energy conscious nation as the model of energy efficiency.
“It is the icon of the green schools movement,” Nathaniel Allen, schools advocacy lead for the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C., said of Richardsville Elementary.
There are an estimated 99,000 public schools and 34,000 private schools, and while there has been a growth in the number of environmentally friendly schools over the last several years, there is still work to do, Allen said.
The White House, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Department of Education have worked together in recent years on a program called Green Ribbon Schools to reward districts that take energy conservation seriously.
“The speed that this effort came together is incredible,” Allen said. “This is one issue where everyone agrees.”
While many school buildings are opening each fall, the net-zero variety remains a Kentucky phenomenon.
“We don’t have them yet,” John Weekes, an architect for IBI Group Architects of Portland, Ore., said about net-zero schools in the Pacific Northwest. “A lot of them are moving toward that area.”
Valley View Middle School in Snohmish, Wash., north of Seattle, opened this fall, Weekes said. The 140,000-square-foot middle school was $5 million under budget, but school officials decided not to exercise the alternate bid on solar panels to make it a net-zero school, the architect said.
Richardsville Elementary operates on an energy use of 18.2 kilo BTUs per square foot per year. BTUs are British Thermal Units, a standard measure of energy. The federal government standard to be termed a net-zero school is 25 kilo BTUs or less per square foot per year, Stanfield said. Both Bristow Elementary, at 19.7 kilo BTUs per square foot per year, and Jody Richards Elementary, at 25 kilo BTUs per square foot per year, are considered “net-zero ready,” at the cusp of where Richardsville is now.
Valley View Middle School in Washington has an energy rating of 24 kilo BTUs per square foot per year, Weekes said.
Net-zero schools are the “hot trend” in public building construction, Hutton said. “It’s one thing to say it, and another thing to verify it,” Hutton said.
The national average use of energy is 73 kilo BTUs per square foot per year, according to information provided in literature about Richardsville Elementary. Bristow and Jody Richards elementary schools don’t have solar panels installed yet, so they remain net-zero ready.
Stanfield said that when a school generates enough electricity to earn income, as Richardsville Elementary has for the Warren County district, it turns an old axiom in school finance on its head: Paying for the school utility bills is a given expense.
“School districts just accepted the fact that they were going to have to pay utility bills,” Stanfield said. “Other counties are noticing the energy savings in Warren County. Now we are able to show some real results, real numbers, that (net-zero) works.”
In the case of Richardsville Elementary, which continues to receive laudatory reviews in national publications such as Parade and Forbes magazines, the just over $37,000 payment from the TVA is placed in a separate account to eventually pay for replacement of the solar panels at Richardsville when they wear out, school district spokeswoman Joanie Hendricks said.
There are some public school buildings that are net-zero, but they aren’t complete schools, Stanfield said. Weekes is aware of some structures on public school campuses that are net-zero, such as gymnasiums.
Besides Warren County’s two net-zero ready schools, there is the 70,000-square-foot Flaherty Primary Center in Meade County, near Fort Knox; and, the 60,000-square-foot Ezra Sparrow Early Childhood Center in Anderson County that are net-zero ready, Stanfield said. Currently under design are schools in Spencer County and in the Bardstown Independent School District that are designed to be net-zero ready, Stanfield said.
“I don’t think you can open a trade magazine now without seeing net-zero,” he said.
Stanfield recently fielded calls from the Ministry of Education in New Zealand and the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., about the Richardsville story. He said he figured after the Richardsville school opened, the inquiries about the concept would lessen. Instead, they have accelerated.
Allen said Richardsville “is a most amazing place,” not only because of its energy savings but also because the students know all about the school and its complicated heating and energy systems. Other schools across America are getting closer to the Richardsville standard, but they haven’t generated their own electricity for payment, Allen said. “And they (Warren County) were able to do that without spending extra money,” he said.
Another public school energy savings strategy pursued is the Energy Star rating found in T.C. Cherry and Parker-Bennett-Curry elementary schools in Bowling Green Independent Schools, according to Rickey Shive, district facilities manager.
Energy Star rating is also planned for the new Dishman-McGinnis Elementary School. Energy Star requires a year’s worth of data to qualify. It definitely makes a difference, Shive said.
For example, the old T.C. Cherry Elementary consumed twice as much energy as the new T.C. Cherry Elementary does.
Under Energy Star, a portfolio is put together that contains information on everything from the building materials used in the school’s construction to the lighting systems, Shive said.
“Energy use is the key factor,” Shive said.
A release from Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson noted that five schools in the Warren County district had been added to seven other schools statewide marking Energy Star designation. Abramson said the schools are among the top 5 percent in the nation for energy efficiency. Richardsville joins Warren East Middle, Oakland Elementary, Plano Elementary and Cumberland Trace on the list of Energy Star schools in Kentucky. There are now 160 schools on the list.
Weekes said people in the Pacific Northwest have been successful in building small net-zero projects in public buildings, but none is as large as Richardsville Elementary.
“This (Richardsville) is an important story in the educational environment with restrained resources. You can save enough money to buy a teacher,” Weekes said.
“The trend toward net-zero schools has been aided by the downturn of the economy,” Hutton said. Since 2008, with building materials costs lessening, builders sharpening their pencils to fine points to land desperately needed construction jobs and the world economy playing a role in the construction slowdown, the cost of outfitting a net-zero school is assumable, the architect said.
“If we experience an upsurge (in the economy), then there will be tough challenges toward making net-zero schools. When push comes to shove, what will those who are in control of educational budgets choose?” he asked.
One blueprint that has been developed are goals set by America’s architects through Architects International to make all new buildings net-zero by 2030.
1 Comments on “Net-Zero School Pays Off : Richardsville Elementary setting standard with its electricity generation”
Julia Diana Woods said at 11:30 am on 20th February 2013:
Thank you ALL for this brilliant example of what is possible!!!! I fully support a Nation wide net-zero school system !
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