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Jun 222009
 

By Diane Porter
Green Right Now

There’s a shiny green report card out in Warren County, Kentucky this month.

The county’s school district won the Alliance to Save Energy’s 2009 Andromeda Award for its programs, which include $4 million in energy savings over the last five years, a 28 percent energy use reduction, a daily curriculum that focuses on energy efficiency and Energy Star ratings on four buildings. But the star of their show undoubtedly is the new Richardsville Elementary, a Warren County School on target to become the nation’s first net zero energy public school when it opens in fall of 2010 (see photo above).

“This is a project that’s near and dear to us,” said Mark Ryles, Director of the Division of Facilities Management for the Kentucky Department of Education. “There were many hands in it. There was a very clear mission, which was to develop and design a net zero school building” and to  “enhance the educational opportunities,” he said.

“We were tickled to death that Warren County had won,” said project architect Kenny Stanfield with the firm of Sherman, Carter, Barnhart. In fact, the district beat out 15 other nominations that ranged from projects involving water heating technology to green condos to a Los Angeles Community College sustainable building effort across its nine campuses.

“Warren County has been a leader for a while, but this is really recognizing all of their efforts so that’s tremendous,” Stanfield said.

In planning the new building, engineers, school facilities management and architects had to first focus on all the areas in which energy could be saved, and then decide how to generate the rest. As a result, the elementary school will have exterior walls built of insulated concrete and Styrofoam, a geothermal HVAC and water-heating system, an air-monitoring system that regulates ventilation to the outdoors, and a north-south orientation with skylights and clerestory windows that pour daylight into classrooms, the gymnasium, the media center and the cafeteria. Overall, the building is expected to consume about 75 percent less energy than the national average for school buildings. (see interior image, right)

More than 40,000 square feet of solar panels take over from there. Mounted on the rooftop and support structures, the solar panels will generate electricity the school needs and send any extra to the grid. While there will be times when the school needs more than it generates, the two should balance on an annual basis. That’s the net-zero thesis at work.

Kentucky is clearly doing something right. They began building geothermal systems for heating and cooling their schools in 1990; other initiatives followed. As of Jan. 30, the state has a dozen Energy-Star certified K-12 schools, according to its own website. And as some newer schools began to exceed the goals set by Energy Star – and even the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEEDS platinum rating — the possibility of a net-zero school took hold.

“We believe that this was a logical step for us. It wasn’t an anomaly,” Ryles said.

The average energy nationwide for schools is about 73 kBTUs per square foot. Kentucky was building schools that were ending up in the 40s, then the 30s, Ryles said. And then a little accidental catalyst called Plano Elementary went up in Warren County.

“Plano kind of flew under everyone’s radar,” said Ryles. It was using just 28 kBTUs per square foot. “At that point if you drew a line across the chart, the next stop was net zero.”

He and engineer Ken Seibert began kicking the idea around. One day, Seibert called and said he had something to show Ryles. The state department of energy got wind of the meeting, and asked if they could bring some people along to listen, folks from state government, big universities, and energy providers. Ryles brought a couple of guests of his own – Warren and Kenton county school representatives. Before he knew it, Seibert was making his presentation to 25 or 30 folks.

“Mr. Seibert put on a show that was fabulous,” Ryles said. “He demonstrated a hypothetical way it would work, he showed us the engineering model, then showed us the business model. It was unbelievable.”

They were all in the same room. Warren and Kenton counties wanted in. Richardsville Elementary – and two other schools, Bristow in Warren County and Turkeyfoot in Kenton County – would soon be on the net zero design boards.

Turning the idea into reality faced some challenges: With school boards and cities and states and private businesses, it can be hard to get everybody to work together. There are various intersecting rules and regulations, and everyone has a territory to call their own. Negotiating new projects through all that red tape and ownership can be sticky.