Warren County Schools lead the way in energy efficient buildings
Kentucky School Advocate
By Jennifer Wohlleb
It’s easy to be dazzled by Richardsville Elementary’s array of solar panels, its compact but attractive building footprint and the homey but “green” finishes, all of which contribute to its status as the nation’s first net-zero energy public school.
But the secret to the Warren County school’s success is the people who have occupied it since it opened five years ago and who make it their personal mission to be as energy efficient as possible while using it.
“One of my favorite stories was right after the school first opened, everything was monitored very closely and our energy use all of a sudden went up and we couldn’t figure out why, because our school is so efficient,” said Principal Jan Casada, who joined the school shortly after it opened. “Well, they tracked it down to our ice cream freezer in the cafeteria. We sell ice cream only on Fridays and it is a great treat. When they realized that was using so much energy (as students opened and closed it), the cafeteria manager unloaded it every night and they unplugged it. Those are things that you don’t think about. And because the building is so efficient, those little things show up.”
Richardsville has been operating at 18.2 kBtus (a measure of energy) per square foot since it opened. In 2014, the national average for school buildings was 73 kBtus and in Kentucky it was 60.
Sherman Carter Barnhart architect Kenny Stanfield, who designed the project, said the school has delivered on all its promises, especially with the support of the students and staff who “live and breathe energy efficiency.”
“A lot of time you start out in a new building and it’s all good news,” he said. “And then year two, the numbers start creeping up and it isn’t quite as efficient because of operations – it’s easier to leave the lights on than to turn them off. You’ve got to have someone in charge who is still carrying that torch. I can’t give enough credit to the folks in Warren County, from the school board, to (Energy Manager) Jay Wilson to the school, especially the principal and the kids and the teachers. They are the ones who are keeping it operating at that low range, so we have always produced more energy than we have consumed.”
Warren County school board Chairman Kerry Young said between the solar panels and Richardsville’s energy practices, he actually looks forward to the energy bills from TVA.
“The way it works now is, we get the energy bill and it says we used $5,000 or $6,200 worth of electricity, but it shows we produce $10,000 worth of electricity, because TVA is actually buying back the electricity that we are generating through the solar at a higher rate than what we actually need,” he said. “So every October they write us a check, and the last three or four Octobers, that check has been between $35,000-$37,000.”
Young said with an average annual savings of about $60,000 in electricity costs, plus the money from TVA, the district comes out ahead $90,000-$100,000 yearly.
“And if you take that savings times 10 (years), the million dollars you invested in your solar panels is now paid for, and your solar panels are guaranteed for 20-25 years,” he said. “So you now have the next 10 years to take that money you’re receiving to put back to replace your solar panels (in the future). And the next time you replace them, it might not cost you anything because when we first started the project, that price was about $8 a square foot. What’s happened is that solar is getting more prevalent and the price is coming down. By the time we bid that project, I think we bought them for like $5 a square foot. So what’s that price going to be 10-15 years from now?”
Other schools, other savings
The district has built two more elementary schools since Richardsville, Bristow and Jody Richards, which are both net-zero ready. They are operating at the same level as Richardsville, but they lack the solar panels. Stanfield said it doesn’t make sense financially to add the solar panels at this time because energy companies don’t have to buy the electricity the two schools generate.
“They can’t do it because TVA does not offer them the same deal as they did with Richardsville,” he said. “The way that I understand it, the incentives for them to purchase green energy aren’t there.”
He said while the solar panel issue is frustrating, it still makes sense for school districts to build in this manner.
“We’re repeating the energy savings,” Stanfield said. “The design works; we’ve repeated that on a number of schools and we’re all getting energy savings. We have a number of schools that are under 25 kBtus.
“There are a number of schools now – and not just what we’ve designed, but other architects, other schools that are doing it – and the numbers continue to come down. That’s the bigger half of the picture. It’s sad that we can’t repeat Richardsville with the solar generation, but our buildings are getting more efficient, each one we design. And that’s where school districts can really save money.”
Stanfield said it can also be a cheaper way to build.
“Richardsville was $168 per square foot, without the solar array,” he said. “And there were schools in neighboring districts that we compared it to that were $190 a square foot. So we were well under the norm when we did Richardsville, and we’re still seeing that kind of savings because, again, we know a building with less volume, a building with a compact footprint, the right solar orientation, all those things together are saving us construction dollars.”
He said it is important to understand a holistic approach is needed for this to work.
“For instance, if you want a really highly efficient HVAC system, then you really need to couple that with a compact building design to get the most out of it,” he said. “If you just have a building that you design like you did a decade ago, you have a high-volume attic and lots of exterior walls, well, even the most efficient HVAC system you can buy won’t overcome those inefficiencies.”
Stanfield said this should become the new normal in school construction.
“What we have been able to show is that we can do net-zero ready and can do those schools at a cost comparable to traditional schools and in the meantime, we’re still saving all that energy,” he said. “We’re still saving 75 percent more energy than a traditional building. That’s still an enormous amount of savings for a school district even if they never put solar panels on it.”
Thinking beyond today nets big savings
Warren County Schools was on the path to energy savings long before it opened Richardsville Elementary in 2010.
“We had an energy manager who was hired before I came on the board (in 2007), and he was going around trying to conserve as much energy as possible, getting a lot of our schools to be ENERGY STAR,” said board Chairman Kerry Young. “At each school, we were getting a little bit better, and a little bit better.”
In fact, when the district built Plano Elementary School in 2007, Young said the TVA came in and changed out its electric meters twice because the utility thought they were not working correctly, since the energy use was so low.
That moment seemed to be a clarion call for the district.
“It’s been a concerted effort by our district, our board, everybody having the foresight to look past right now and look into the future and ask, ‘What can this be?’” Young said. “We had one school get down to 37 kBtus. Then it became a challenge. Then they got it down to 33 and then Plano came in at 28.”
He said overall, the district has accrued nearly $7 million in cost avoidance over the years, thanks to its many energy-saving ways.
“Every school district is operating on fewer resources and the needs are greater, and that $7 million that has been saved is money that can be put toward students and teachers instead of brick and mortar and electric and all that; it can be put back in to the classroom,” Young said.
And he said the district is not ready to rest on its laurels.
“I guarantee when it comes time for us to build another building, we’ll be looking at Richardsville, Bristow, Jody Richards Elementary to see how do we build the next school so that it works just as efficient or even better,” he said.