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When I was in school, my classmates and I argued with our administrators about a topic we perceived to be a grave injustice. A Powerade vending machine was by the locker rooms, but no Coke machine in the entire school. We were organized and ready to revolt to affect a necessary change.
Kids today seem to have more sophisticated priorities for school upgrades. For example, students in the Salt Lake City school district want to transition to 100 percent clean electricity by 2030. Who will lead the charge to update our schools to more sustainable buildings.
In June 2020, the Salt Lake City school board unanimously approved working toward a clean electricity target within the decade (https://bit.ly/2PS7Akt). Additionally, they seek to transition off fossil fuels for energy and transportation by 2040. By any standards, these are ambitious goals. The background of these decisions is even more intriguing as students demanded change.
With help from the Utah Sierra Club, district students got 800 petition signatures on the topic, including parents and staff members. One of the students leading the way is Andie Madsen, who told the Sierra Club, "People in our generation are facing a lot of uncertainties, from COVID-19 to the climate crisis, and this is a win we're happy about because it demonstrates our commitment to building the strength of our communities."
What about the financial impact of these decisions on the Salt Lake City school board?
The district contracted McKinstry Engineering to explore specific recommendations. I interviewed McKinstry Energy Engineer Erica Jorgensen about the project, who says this particular school analysis is unique because students were the driving force behind the initiative.
“Usually, we hear from the energy or sustainability managers in a district,” she explains. “They bring us in to float energy improvement ideas to the school board. Our goal is to figure out what motivates the customer and target an end goal.”
Typically, schools aim to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent to 30 percent and use the money they saved in the utility budget for additional capital upgrades.
“Starting with quick payback measures, such as lighting and domestic water system upgrades, helps address bigger maintenance projects in the future,” Jorgensen adds.
Integrated environmental solutions modeling can be an excellent way to narrow recommendations for life-cycle analyses of individual schools.
“You can model what things would look like with a ground-source heat pump, individual air-source heat pumps or other systems and overlay those options with the climate,” Jorgensen notes. ”There is no easy answer, so you always have to look for what is most effective for existing schools.”
Regarding what design features she would include in a new school building, she says: “Start with a great envelope. It is money very well spent to go above the code minimums. For the mechanical system, ground-source heat pumps are a good fit for our climate. Even if the building is demolished, you can use those fields again.”
Another useful strategy she mentions is occupancy-driven ventilation with CO2sensors in the return air ducts when zoning will allow it. Auditoriums are an ideal space for that approach.
What happens next for the Salt Lake City school district?
McKinstry will present the school board with a list of ideal buildings in the district for the best pilot programs. Their recommendations will be based on utility spend, energy use intensity (EUI), existing capital improvement budgets, envelope upgrade potential and existing mechanical systems.
Zero-energy School Examples
Are there examples of school districts already benefiting from zero-energy-targeted buildings?
In a March ASHRAE National Capital Chapter webinar, three engineers from consulting engineering firm CMTA discussed net-zero energy in schools. The presentation notes that “U.S. school districts spend $6 billion each year on energy — second only to salaries.”
One of their key recommendations was to plan for zero energy early and often in the design process: “All decisions that drive drastic energy reduction and improve wellness are in the first 30 percent of the project.”
The panel showed a graph illustrating their construction cost findings. They plotted construction cost per student and EUI, revealing that zero-energy design in schools was not a cost premium in nine Arlington, Virginia, schools built since 2012.
If you are looking for a larger sample of research about zero-energy schools, the New Buildings Institute has an informative site. Its “Getting to Zero” page provides a laundry list of policies, programs and case studies making a compelling case for zero-energy schools (https://bit.ly/3mMWtVY).
One document, in particular, is great for communicating the value of zero-energy initiatives. The “Zero Energy Schools Stakeholder Engagement and Messaging” document (https://bit.ly/3deBrfH) contributes to a critical piece of this whole puzzle: “How can I explain this topic to people so they will take action?”
The NBI stakeholder document includes a chart of 14 different education stakeholders, from school boards to utility companies, that could benefit from zero-energy (ZE) projects.
One example that appeals to all audiences is this: “The ZE market is growing rapidly — nearly doubling every year in the numbers of verified and emerging projects. Since 2015, the number of ZE-verified, emerging and ultra-low schools has grown by almost 40 percent.”
Many districts are finding the investment in zero-energy pencils out.
Across the pond, the UK-based Let’s Go Zero 2030 campaign (www.letsgozero.org) recruited 172 schools to move toward a zero-carbon future. They are banding together to demand more action from the UK government, offering resources to share, and connecting and acting on initiatives with other schools. It may be the case that the students involved in these improvement projects will carry success stories into their careers and places of work.
Ideally, the high schoolers currently advocating for change will end up on school boards and work as energy managers. The best advocates are the people who have experienced positive change.
Mahider Tadesse, a student at East High School in Salt Lake City, eloquently describes the big picture to the Sierra Club: "[The 100 percent clean electricity] campaign has shown me what a big difference a group of high schoolers can make in leading the way for climate action that has the potential to expand equity by investing cost-savings into underserved students and improving indoor air quality, which will help students — myself and community included — who are disproportionately exposed to air pollution where they live."
She certainly set her goals higher than a Coke machine by the locker room, and we thank her for that. Administrators, parents, taxpayers and teachers should follow her lead.