By Sara Ross
I’m writing to you as a parent of kids in the Amherst schools, a “townie” who returned (proud member of the class of 1993), an inhabitant of a net-zero home for the past decade, and as someone whose day job is to make change so that the transformational power of our public schools is fully activated in our race to address the climate emergency.
I’m not an engineer or an architect; but I have spent countless hours learning from the best in those professions as they work to make schools safer, healthier places for kids today and in the future. In a skate-to-where-the-puck-is-going-to-be way, that means ensuring that schools are equipped to pursue their core mission – to educate our children – on a planet characterized by rapidly changing climate. This affects the buildings and grounds where they learn, the buses they ride, the food they eat, and the learning agenda.
Given that background, it may not surprise you to hear that I have been excited to participate in and support the important work of our Elementary School Building Committee and the Net-Zero Subcommittee (as a resident, not a member).
My goal is to translate the jargon, share with you some of what I’ve learned from working on these issues with leaders from across the country, and to infect you with the same confidence and excitement I have for this project!
What is a net-zero energy building?
Simply put, it is a building that produces at least as much renewable (clean!) energy as it consumes on-site.
Net-zero buildings of all types are cropping up across the country, but schools lead the way as the most prolific among the building types achieving net-zero status. The first net-zero energy school was built over a decade ago in Kentucky.
How do you make a net-zero energy building?
There is no magic here, but there are a few core elements that are important to get right. Put simply, the formula is:
Step 1. Put the building in the right place.
Step 2. Design a simple form and build it well.
Step 3. Reduce the amount of the energy needed to operate the building and make sure it runs on electricity alone (no more burning fossil fuels!).
Step 4. Engage the occupants on how to be energy-smart.
At this point, you can calculate how much energy the building requires. The standard way to measure this is energy use intensity (EUI). If you are new to EUI, you are not alone! Just think of it as the building equivalent of miles per gallon (except in the case of EUI, lower is better).
Energy use intensity is expressed as how many units of energy (kBtu) are needed to operate the building for a year. In order to compare buildings of different sizes, we normalize the measure by the square footage of the building. A typical school building in Massachusetts uses around 60 kBtu per square foot of building space per year. Our target for the new elementary school is to do steps 1-4 so well that we only use 25 kBtu per square foot of building space per year.
And that leads us to . . .
Step 5. Install enough solar energy on the site (most cost-effectively done on the roof) to meet the energy bill that remains after we’ve done our very best on the earlier steps.
An EUI of 25 is a good goal. Other schools in Massachusetts have achieved this target. It’s also the target that our utility, Eversource, requires us to achieve in order to earn their financial support through the MassSave program.
Why are net-zero buildings important?
First, they are budget-friendly. Net-zero buildings cost less to operate and protect our budgets from the wild swings in the price of heating oil or natural gas that have been a financial hardship for many families this winter. Second, net-zero buildings are a joy to inhabit. They are full of natural light. They are devoid of the hot and cold zones that characterize many old, leaky buildings. They are mechanically ventilated to ensure a consistent supply of fresh air. With well-insulated walls and high-performance windows, they are delightfully quiet. Lastly, with buildings responsible for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the Commonwealth, net-zero buildings are an important part of achieving our town, state and national climate goals, all of which target a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero by 2050.
Net zero schools enjoy all those benefits and more. In fact, our non-profit joined with other national leaders in making the case that schools are, in fact, the most important buildings to make net-zero.
In the world of schools, net-zero energy is not a new concept, and has been widely embraced across the country and political spectrum. With evidence that net-zero schools do not necessarily cost more to build than conventional schools, the only thing standing in the way of all new schools being net-zero is awareness and a very human desire to keep doing things the way we have always done them.
There is no doubt in my mind that Amherst can build a net-zero energy school that reduces the cost of operating our school buildings, creates a healthy and safe place for generations of Amherst’s young people to learn, and does our part to address the climate crisis. Don’t believe me? Just ask the residents of Bowling Green in Kentucky.