A new Department of Energy (DOE) initiative is paving the way to ensure that more and more K–12 schools built in the United States are zero energy.

The Better Buildings Initiative is a DOE program involving state and local officials, corporate executives, university presidents, utilities and others to improve the energy efficiency of buildings and plants around the country. Following this, the DOE introduced the Better Buildings Accelerators, a program designed to demonstrate specific approaches to achieve building energy efficiency. And, just recently, the DOE expanded this by creating the Zero Energy Schools Accelerator.

In announcing the new initiative, the DOE noted that the education sector is spending approximately $14 billion per year in construction and renovation costs for K–12 schools, providing an excellent opportunity for energy efficiency initiatives to be considered and included in these construction and renovation projects.

"Each year, a significant portion of taxpayer dollars are spent on school utility expenses, thereby cutting into funding that could be allocated to resources for students," stated the DOE. In fact, according to the DOE, energy expenses are second only to salaries in K–12 schools.

The DOE's goal is to encourage the construction of zero energy schools, which it says will use between 65 and 80 percent less energy than conventionally constructed schools. The remaining energy requirements will be supplied by renewable energy—primarily rooftop solar.

Partnering with the DOE, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) conducted a feasibility study on zero energy schools—opportunities, challenges, and solutions. The recently released NREL report noted that there are numerous strategies that can be effective in reducing energy in K–12 schools, including east-west orientation of new schools, improved insulation, geothermal wells, high-efficiency HVAC systems, and high-efficiency service water heating equipment.

Of particular interest to electrical contractors are NREL's recommendations for rooftop solar arrays, 100 percent LED lighting, enhanced controls for common areas and exterior lighting based on LED technology, exterior lighting power density reductions, vacancy sensors to minimize lighting during non-occupied periods, plug load reductions and improved controls for shedding loads during unoccupied periods, and demand-controlled ventilation with energy recovery ventilators using dedicated outside air systems.

The DOE has already arranged partnerships with 10 schools districts around the nation, as well as several state governments, utilities, and energy efficiency organizations.