The Case for a Net Zero Energy Central Middle School

Submitted by Julie DesChamps

Cutting net zero energy related costs for the new Central Middle School is penny wise and pound foolish. The Board of Estimate and Taxation vastly underestimated the expense of the building at $67.5M, whereas the conceptual design for a net zero energy school was priced at $117.3M by Turner Construction. Now the pressure is on to cut, cut, cut…

Certain elected officials balk at the upfront costs of a net zero energy building, viewing it as a “nice to have” add-on, easy pickings for the chopping block. But this kind of thinking is short sighted and misguided. Eliminating net zero energy standards is a mistake, particularly without the full picture of the federal grants and operational savings available to offset the initial costs.

A net zero school generates as much energy as it consumes by utilizing on-site renewable energy systems, like geothermal wells and solar arrays, and by investing in efficiency strategies, such as a tight building envelope with enhanced insulation, carbon dioxide room sensors and natural and dimmable LED lighting. The result is an efficient, high-performance building that provides a healthy, productive learning environment, community resilience and operational savings and offers substantial benefits over conventional, code-compliant, or high-performance buildings.

If net zero energy standards are eliminated at this stage, we will lose an opportunity to prepare for the town’s future and enhance our energy and fiscal security. We will increase our vulnerability to energy price volatility and risk veering from a course of sustainable building for the town. This move would be a setback to the First Selectman’s goal of reducing energy consumption, spending, and greenhouse gas emissions by 20-40%, as the Board of Education portfolio contributes disproportionately
to all these factors.

Long-term energy savings and federal grants provided in The Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure and Investments Jobs Act can offset the upfront costs of net zero. Yet these topics were a mere footnote or altogether ignored, as the building committee has not yet prepared an assessment. How can an informed decision be made about the cost of a net zero build without this critical data? Such an omission could cost the Town in the long run.

Cost less to operate. In fiscal 2022, Greenwich Public Schools’ energy cost of $3.2 million was 52% of total Town costs, a line item second only to salaries. The current energy costs for CMS run approximately $186,000 a year, an expense that can be eliminated through net zero.

Net zero energy standards deliver the greatest energy and operational savings, as the result of energy efficiencies and renewable energy systems, as well as reduced maintenance needs. A new code-compliant building will consume about 3-4x more energy and a high-performance twice the amount than a net zero building.

It is unfortunate that the analysis on energy savings has not been completed for CMS. However, it’s reasonable to assume that the savings are considerable based on case studies. For example, Jennings Creek Elementary in Kentucky, which was completed in 2018, enjoys energy savings of $195,000 annually, while at Buckley Elementary in Manchester, Connecticut’s first zero energy school, officials estimate an annual energy savings of $100,000.

Provide resiliency. A net zero energy CMS will help our community build resilience to global events and climate impacts, protecting us from future energy crises and providing shelter during extreme weather events, which will only increase in frequency. Building net zero mitigates these risks, along with the associated fiscal impacts.

Create a healthy, productive learning environment. Many of the design features of net zero energy buildings, like daylighting and improved ventilation and air quality, are shown to improve student productivity and health. Further, the design and technology, as well as tools for monitoring and measuring, offer unique innovative educational opportunities for students.

Many in our community are concerned about the world that our children will inherit. The fiscal health of our town is also critically important to our citizens and taxpayers, and we all want a healthy, high-performing middle school for our community. A net zero energy CMS will build a resilient, sustainable and healthy future at Greenwich Public Schools, while saving money and decreasing risk for the Town of Greenwich in the long term. Let’s stay the course with a net zero energy CMS!