Skyrocketing enrollment is forcing Arlington Public Schools (APS) to build new schools at a time when the international trade situation is driving up steel prices and a persistently high commercial vacancy rate at home is affecting revenue.
It’s the perfect time for innovation to squeeze the most from construction dollars. One way is through zero-energy buildings that produce more electricity than they consume. In the process, the buildings generate savings for the school system while battling climate change and revolutionizing learning.
The first of these certified zero-energy schools in Arlington is Discovery Elementary School. Designed to reduce energy use intensity as low as possible, the materials, siting and massing of the school did much to lower its energy consumption. The 1,710 photovoltaic solar cells atop Discovery further lowered energy consumption to the point that the building produces more electricity than it consumes.
These solar panels arrayed on Discovery’s rooftop play a major role in lowering the school’s annual utility costs by approximately $100,000 in comparison to a typical APS elementary school of similar size, according to John C. Chadwick, Assistant Superintendent for Facilities and Operations.
It cost nearly $1.6 million to install the solar panels and an online energy dashboard that displays the resultant energy data in real time. It is estimated this amount will be paid off in 15 years. The evidence so far shows the return on investment is considerable and worth replicating across the school system.
Discovery’s surplus energy will soon be even more valuable to the school system. Thanks to legislation introduced by Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan, Jr. (D-48) and signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Dominion Energy will launch a pilot program next year that allows the school’s surplus energy to offset utility costs at other schools. In effect, the program will reimburse the school system for its energy-efficient school. Discovery’s surplus electricity could earn approximately $9,000 per year for APS.
Two more zero-energy schools will soon follow — Alice West Fleet Elementary School in 2019 and a new elementary school at the Reed site in 2021. These two schools are part of an APS vision in which a network of solar panels and energy dashboards exist at every one of its schools.
What is remarkable is how zero-energy design transforms a school building into a teaching tool.
Discovery’s energy dashboard is a tool for teaching math, science and sustainability. Teachers collect data from the dashboard to formulate homework and test questions, teach graphing and analytics, and use in writing prompts and art projects. Students also collected data from the dashboard to complete an audit that earned the school a Zero Energy Certification award from the International Living Future Institute in April 2018.
In addition, four of the school’s solar panels are on a rooftop learning lab. Through it all, students and staff take control of how their actions impact the world around them and use that information to become responsible stewards of the planet.
Perhaps a recent American Institute of Architects report said it best, noting “Discovery offers a positive example of a solution to the global crisis of climate change — and along the way emboldens students with the expectation that they are creative participants in those solutions.”
The age and condition of some existing Arlington schools mean that reaping the benefits of zero-energy design will require creativity and time. This is why APS is poised to enter a Power Purchase Agreement to lease roof space at schools to vendors who will install solar panels on them. The vendors will sell the power they produce to APS at lower rates that the utility company charges, reducing acquisition and utility costs for the school system while mitigating exposure to long-term increases, said Chadwick in May. Five schools have been selected and the resulting savings will fund zero-energy upgrades at other schools.
Zero-energy schools will also help Arlington generate 100 percent of the power it uses through renewable, sustainable means like solar by 2035, as outlined in the Community Energy Plan.
APS deserves credit for its drive to transform school buildings into zero-energy facilities. The long-term benefits outweigh criticism that might be levied against investing in such far-reaching innovation during a period of tight budgets. These facilities will generate long-term savings and income, fight climate change and make a lasting and positive impact on teaching and learning. That’s a lot of bang for the buck.
Laura Saul Edwards has lived in Arlington since 1994. She serves on the School Board’s Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Projects (FAC) and is an APS 2012 Honored Citizen.