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K-12 Building That Generates Cash? Go Figure...

The Nation’s first net zero energy school was the subject of an article in Forbes recently because it just got its first full annual electric bill… errr, check. Yep, that’s right, after a full year in service, Richardsville Elementary School was paid $37,227 for the energy it delivered to the local electric utility.

If you were asked to guess where Richardsville Elementary School  is located, you might suggest California, Massachusetts, or Vermont -- where Prius ownership is highest and the politics bluest. Well, the answer’s nope, nope and nope. Richardsville’s in that red state of Kentucky.

Yes, Kentucky. Where the grass may be blue but the politics are red. Where coal is king, electric costs are the fourth lowest in the nation, and energy efficiency innovations yield taxpayers $3.3 Million in annual avoided costs.

You might ask what it means to be “Net Zero Energy”. It means that the building generates all the energy it needs (or more) to operate using various passive and active strategies like solar, wind, geothermal, etc. Public utilities are usually required to buy any excess energy generated from alternative energy producers hooked up to their grid and hence the check instead of a bill.

Typical annual energy costs for K-12 schools in the US are $1.25 per square foot. At 77,466 square feet, Richardsville earned almost 48¢ per square foot. In a state like Virginia, where average electric costs are 12.5¢/Kwh, that would translate to almost 75¢ per square foot or $58,100 per year in earnings and $155,000 in annual avoided costs. Assuming an interest rate of 3% and no increases in energy costs, that works out to more than $3 million saved over the expected life of the building.

You’re probably thinking that it costs a fortune to build such an efficient building and the up-front investment won’t stand up to economic analysis. You’d be wrong, though.

According to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, a program of the National Institute for Building Sciences, average Elementary School  construction cost in the US in 2010 was  $190 per square foot, and Richardsville came in at $156.

Part of the reason for the affordable construction costs is that it’s built with insulated concrete form technology. ICFs like Polycrete® Big Block™ are a very cost effective strategy for achieving high insulation value in walls and that allows downsizing of HVAC systems. ICF technology also adds of lot of other cost-saving attributes. A key to making the overall economic model of a net zero energy building work is controlling the costs of construction.

How does something like this happen? Well certainly not overnight. It took careful design and planning over a decade. Now, nearly all twenty-one schools in Kentucky's Warren County meet Energy Star certification. That accomplishment has resulted in more than $5 million in avoided energy costs to date. Real dollars that taxpayers did not have to shell out.

Richardsville’s Net Zero accomplishment is a result of its innovative building design. Although it’s  a typical school with classrooms, gym, cafeteria and such, many features are unique. Everything from the heating and cooling system to the lights work with sensors that automatically determine appropriate light and temperature levels and then make adjustments.

Most schools in the US operate at 73kBtus per square foot. The average Warren County Kentucky school uses 40.  In 2007, Warren County built Plano Elementary School to use 28. As it continued to work with its crack team of architects and engineers, it leveraged the lessons learned from Plano to design Richardsville to operate at 18 kBtus per sqft.  That’s less than 25% of the average school’s energy usage.

In 2008, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear launched “Intelligent Energy Choices for Kentucky’s Future, Kentucky’s Seven Point Strategy for Energy Independence.” Despite that Kentucky is the nation’s 3rd largest coal producer, the commonwealth's governing team introduced this far-sighted and ambitious program that's paying off in real dollars. 

It’s an oft repeated proverb that the cheapest energy is the energy you don’t use, but opponents of net zero insist it’s just a theory that won’t work in the real world. The Net Zero model that Richardsville Elementary’s design team pioneered has blown up that argument once and for all.

Imagine how net zero schools and government buildings will reduce the pressures on state and local budgets. Elimination of energy costs will free up funds for more teachers or other educational resources. Now that Richardsville’s proven the net zero model, we can feel comfortable repeating it for all new school construction. Our students and taxpayers deserve it.

For information on building your net zero design team, please call or email Bruce Anderson, PolycreteUSA 1-800-570-4313 Bruce@PolycreteUSA.com

2-16 Thurman St., PO Box 24185
Richmond, VA 23224

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