By Monica Kanojia, Consultant, U.S. Department of Energy


Education is the cornerstone of society and plays a big part in the development of every individual. Every day in our country’s schools – from kindergarten to high school – minds are molded through everyday experiences within classrooms, shaping the ability of students to respond to situations in the real world. Whether it be equipping young minds with the foundational knowledge to create solutions to address the nation’s energy challenges or the ability to develop new technologies that facilitate resilience, it is increasingly evident that the quality of education, and the environment in which it is provided, has a significant impact on today’s students.


Educators are tasked with an arguably formidable responsibility to encourage students to learn through creative lesson plans and engaging exercises. Contributing to the challenge is the fact that these teachers often have outdated facilities with poor ventilation and minimal natural daylight working against them. With students spending an average of approximately 180 days in the classroom, it is more important than ever to ensure that they all have the opportunity to thrive in an optimal learning environment.


On December 6, 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched the Zero Energy Schools Accelerator to jump-start the development of zero energy schools across the country and better enable states and school districts alike to design, construct, and operate cutting-edge, energy saving schools that create seamless integration between design, sustainability, and learning. The Accelerator was introduced as part of an in-person tour of Discovery Elementary, a recently completed Zero Energy school, which, first and foremost, is an energy-efficient building that also, on a source energy basis, uses actual annual delivered energy that is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy.


Discovery Elementary, located near the nation’s capital in Arlington, Virginia, is the product of a collaborative effort between the school district, school administrators, and design and engineering firms. The school’s sustainability features are impressive – it has over 1,700 roof-mounted solar panels, a geothermal well field, 100% LED lighting, bio-retention areas that clean and slowly release all of the water from the site, ideal solar orientation and shading, and insulated concrete exterior walls. The most impressive feature, however, is a byproduct of the desire to create a building that inspires forward-looking, inquiry-based learning, and a sense of ownership among students and school administrators alike. The school helps fuel the student body’s enthusiasm for learning, promoting engagement with peers, teachers, and even the building itself.


Discovery has an open floor-plan with distinct, tiered academic zones for each grade level, with theming and graphic wayfinding throughout. As students progress through the school, their “world expands,” starting out as Backyard Adventurers in kindergarten and finally becoming Galaxy Voyagers in 5th grade.  As a student’s curriculum and identity expands through each grade level, so does educational signage, with the relationship between the sustainability features of the building connecting to facts about sustainability.


Classrooms at Discovery encourage creativity and the desire to learn through flexible features like foldable partitions, reading steps, and furniture that can be reconfigured and move with students. Clear walls that allow more natural light to enter the school building have resulted in greater interaction between students and administrators.


Courtesy of VMDO

“I think what is important about this building is that it allows teachers to think about how we learn and how students learn,” said Dr. Erin Russo, Principal of Discovery Elementary. “Curriculum is just something the state gives to us and you can teach that anywhere, but with this space, we can really get creative and experiment, and shepherd meaningful experiences for students.”


Discovery’s energy performance goals are clearly integrated into learning goals for its students, encouraging them to participate in tracking efficiency measures and determining how they can contribute to performance improvements. A rooftop solar lab allows students to conduct real time and on-going experiments and the associated data is monitored through a building dashboard system accessible on any device in the school. Students are also involved in supporting smart and sustainable transportation to and from school, tracking the number of cars at drop off and pick-up, and instituting a Bike-or-Walk to School Day and tracking the associated energy savings.


Considerations for site footprint, solar orientation, building construction, and energy use were given top priority throughout the iterative design process. Designed to meet an Energy Use Index (EUI) of 23 kBTU/Sq. Ft./year, which is substantially less than the regional average consumption rate, Discovery has the ability to host 650 students within an approximately 98,000 square foot property, and is expected to save about $75,000 in energy costs per year.


“Discovery is highly efficient because the effort to build it was highly collaborative from the start and continues to be today,” said R. Anthony Hans, CMTA. “We track systems data in collaboration with the school to ensure that we can get in and fix anything that is malfunctioning on a weekly basis. Continuous collaboration is one of the main reasons that this school is performing 10-20% better than our energy model.”


Through programs like DOE’s Zero Energy Schools Accelerator, zero energy schools have the potential to save 65-80% in energy consumption, depending on the climate zone. By aggressively pursuing energy efficiency opportunities, school districts could dedicate these savings toward other learning needs, including teachers, computers, or books. Given the myriad benefits – from opportunities to improve energy performance to design elements to better support learning – the rise of zero energy schools will help accelerate the entire market toward high performance energy design, construction, and operation.


Learn more about the Zero Energy Schools Accelerator and how to get involved here.


Monica Kanojia is a consultant  for the U.S. Department of Energy. She is the Communications Team Lead for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Commercial Buildings Integration (CBI) Program within the Building Technologies Office.