Going Back to School With Net-Zero

Submitted by Myra Klockenbrink

A decision to cut Net-Zero (NZ) will delay the new CMS project and end up costing the Town taxpayers money now and denying us millions of dollars over the lifetime of the building. SLAM, the architect for CMS, declared NZ as one of the three top goals for their design of the school. These architects were charged with designing for NZ, and $47,000 was allocated for that NZ design.

The focus of the building Committee has to be on efficient, cost-effective design. NZ targets the energy needs of the building and requires the building to be energy self-sufficient with renewable, clean energies FROM THE START OF THE DESIGN PROCESS resulting in significant annual operation and maintenance savings, significant annual utility spend savings and a healthier environment for our students.

When the budget is set designers and engineers who have been hired to meet that budget and those energy goals can then design to meet them. They begin to orient the building to maximize solar capacity, design a building envelope that is super insulated while providing for fresh air and daylighting opportunities; heating and cooling are designed to be integrated with the ventilation and hot water needs working together in a single system that can run virtually energy-cost free. Not to mention, zero carbon is emitted in a NZ system. In other words, super high energy efficiency and zero carbon output are the goals.

Planning for NZ begins with identifying the building’s energy needs — the most expensive, carbon-intensive part of any building. These energy needs are expressed as Energy Use Intensity (EUI) or the amount of energy used per square foot over the course of a year, kind of like miles per gallon for cars. And just like when you buy a car you assess performance as a function of the overall cost, usually more miles per gallon for a lower sticker price. In the case of buildings, the lower the EUI, the more efficient the building, and therefore lower operational costs.

To get to NZ the design of the building should have a target EUI within a set budget in order to optimize the design and reduce annual operating costs. This means that all the parties involved in the decision-making process have to collaborate toward the common goal of a building that generates as much energy as it uses — all while reducing the amount of energy needed due to modern and efficient building practices. By adopting this approach costs can be kept in line with what is expected for a conventional build where energy use isn’t a main driver of the design process.

The capital costs of a conventional building run with fossil fuels are not insignificant either because these systems need maintenance and replacement. Earlier this spring the Town spent $3.6 million in Federal ARP money to purchase and install chiller units and cooling towers for Julian Curtiss and GHS respectively. In total, $8 million, or 25% of the ARP budget is being used to improve and invest in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) in our schools. That is BIG money that could have been used for the Old Greenwich School renovation or to go towards the new CMS building.

Sadly, town leadership is spending good money after bad because those funds will be spent on a legacy fossil-fuel run system that will continue to drain our budgets. Already in 2023 the energy needs of our schools consume 59 percent of the Town’s utilities budget or $3.4 million. Imagine for a moment, if we had that money to use to improve our schools, instead of waiting until they are literally falling down to repair and rebuild them. We have to get a handle on our energy costs or they will bury us. Fortunately we have a way to bring them all the way down to ZERO. With NZ. But it takes vision, grit, teamwork and follow through.

NZ is not free, but it costs significantly less that a conventional building and incentives and programs exist that make the installation of solar arrays and geothermal wells for no cost to the owner at all. We need a side-by-side analysis of both systems before we treat NZ as a nice-to-have amenity. NZ is the future of the construction and operation of a school building and we risk being buried in the past if our decision makers don’t do their homework now.