Kentucky’s utility rates are among the lowest in the nation. But even so, several public school districts have found that it still pays to build energy efficient schools. One such school in Warren County has taken efficiency even further, and is now generating more energy than the building uses.
Richardsville Elementary has all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a green school. It’s heated and cooled by geothermal energy. The gym floor is bamboo. There’s an array of solar panels—both on the roof, and in the parking lot. But the building’s energy efficient features go further…they’re incorporated into every aspect of planning and design.
Warren County School District Energy Manager Jay Wilson stands in Richardsville lobby, and points upward.
“If you look up, you can see what we call the spine of the building,” he said. “It runs all the way through the building, and this is how we bring a lot of natural lighting into the building.”
There’s a TV screen on the wall, showing the building’s energy consumption. Straight ahead is the gym, where a class is playing basketball and jumping rope.
A school the size of Richardsville usually costs its district about $8000 a month in utility costs. The bill for Richardsville?
“We have no utility bill here, no.”
Richardsville is the first net-zero school—not only the first in Kentucky, but the first in the country.
“Net-zero” is a term that refers to buildings that have zero net energy consumption. There are a few ways to do this, but usually it’s by designing an energy-efficient building, then adding on enough renewable energy to produce as much energy as the building uses.
Everything about the way Richardsville was planned and designed took energy efficiency into account. It’d take way too much time to list all of the building’s features, but here are a few: insulated concrete forms, which hold in the heat and cooling. There’s an abundance of natural light, and darker classrooms have several high-tech solar tubes, where natural light filters in on command. There’s a commercial-scale kitchen, which uses combi ovens—a combination of convection and steam—instead of fryers and large exhaust hoods.
Lots of these features could work anywhere, at any school. When you don’t count the solar panels, the school was built at a cost of about $168 per square foot, which is the budget for any similarly-sized school. And Ken Seibert of CMTA Engineers—the firm that engineered the school—says even with the cost of the solar panels, the return on investment makes sense.
“This building has a financial return on 12 years and the building’s going to be there for 30, 40, 45 years,” he said. “So, thinking long-term, it works great. When you just think short-term, developer mentality, no, it won’t pay back in a five-year period.”
With the solar panels, Richardsville cost about $206 per square foot. In this case, Warren County Schools partially paid for the solar panels with a grant. But even without that, Tony Hans of CMTA says other schools could forego other expenses and still make the economics of the project work out.
“In each project you’re going to have some type of extraneous expense that you may spend on a spiral staircase or on a terrazzo floor or maybe it’s stone on the exterior at the entrance,” he said. “And what we looked at in this project was ‘how can we cost-shift some things away from those type of areas and into the renewable energy that could be put on the project?’”
Greg Guess is the director of Kentucky’s Division of Efficiency and Conservation. His department is encouraging school districts to build net-zero ready schools, which means they’re only lacking some renewable energy source. And as prices on solar panels come down, Guess says those buildings will be ready to become net-zero.
“We think it’s a win-win situation,” Guess said. “It’s something that benefits the students and it does so from a standpoint of creating more money for the district to spend educating students, and it creates a better learning environment for the students.”
Because Richardsville is in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s service area, those solar panels have already started paying off. TVA buys back renewable energy at a premium, and sent the school a check for $37,000 last year, for the extra power it sold back to the grid.
In the rest of Kentucky, it’s more complicated. The state’s net metering laws restrict solar energy installations to 30 kilowatts…and Richardsville has about 11 times that capacity. But buildings that want to install more solar energy can apply to be a small or large-capacity co-generation facility, which is more complicated than net metering.
That’s what Locust Trace Agriscience Farm in Lexington does—it’s the only other net zero school currently operating in the state. Through an agreement with Kentucky Utilities gets a credit for the extra energy the school produces. Fayette County Public Schools then applies that credit help pay for energy at other schools in the district.
And as politicians like to point out, Kentucky has among the lowest energy costs in the nation. This means that if it makes economic sense to build energy efficient buildings here, it would only make more sense in other, more expensive places.
Besides the obvious benefit to the environment and the school’s non-existent energy bills, Richardsville has another less obvious benefit. Students walk through hallways dedicated to topics like recycling and geothermal energy. They watch the energy production of the solar panels. Manesha Ford leads Richardsville’s energy team, and says every student has learned lessons about energy and conservation from the building.
“They see it every day and they get the opportunity here to see some things that you wouldn’t normally see, like the solar tubes,” she said. “And we have little bitty kids who can tell you about that.”
Educators say students who learn all about saving energy through their school buildings are likely to take those lessons home to their families and inspire behavior change outside the school.