Boulder Valley School District On Its Way To Net-Zero Energy

In the United States, school buildings are the third biggest energy user of all commercial building types, not only producing a lot of emissions but also costing a lot of money. Each year, K-12 schools spend $8 billion on energy—more than they spend on computers and textbooks combined. One school district in Colorado decided to do something about that.

The Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) is embarking on an ambitious program to have its portfolio of over 50 school buildings be net-zero energy and achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. Over 70 percent of BVSD’s 4.8 million square feet of buildings are over 30 years old, so the program includes retrocommissioning and deep retrofits as well as new construction. RMI partnered with BVSD not only to help it reach its remarkable goal, but also to create roadmaps that can educate and potentially motivate other school districts throughout the state and country to strive for net-zero energy.

In 2009, the Boulder Valley School District developed its first Sustainability Management System (SMS), to define a vision and goals around sustainability related to buildings, materials, transportation, and education. The SMS helped the district decrease energy and water use, increase the use of renewable energy, and increase composting and recycling. To provide more granularity to the SMS, in 2013 the district developed a Sustainable Energy Plan (SEP) addressing the significant impact energy has on the district’s sustainability goals and budget—energy is the second greatest expenditure for the district after salaries. BVSD spends approximately $5 million a year on electricity and natural gas. “This project is not only about energy and climate, but also about sensible responsible use of tax-payers funds,” says Victor Olgyay, a principal in RMI’s buildings practice.

The SEP outlines the short-term goal of reducing the district’s energy use 20 percent below 2008 levels by 2019. The long-term goal is to achieve an average energy use intensity (EUI)—the energy consumed per square foot per year—of less than 30 kBtu/SF by 2050, on the way to net-zero energy. This is over twice as efficient as the current buildings in the district with an average EUI of 65. Fortunately, Jeff Medwetz, Project Manager of Energy Systems for BVSD, was well aware of deep retrofits. “Several years ago I was at a conference and heard someone from RMI talk about deep retrofits. What I heard made so much sense that I researched it more, and that’s how deep retrofits got incorporated into our energy plan,” Medwetz says.

In 2014, district voters approved a $576.5 million bond to fund capital improvements across the district, including funding to improve the energy efficiency across BVSD’s portfolio based on that plan. The bond improvements include deep retrofits on eight schools, retrocommissioning on 38 other schools, and new construction for four schools and three district support facilities. One of the most important aspects of this project was the planning involved even before the bond passed. “When the money arrived the school district was ready. They had goals set and a plan in place,” according to Olgyay.

Another important aspect is that BVSD recognizes the importance of energy in its planning. “In a school district setting, with so many competing voices—parents, staff, principals, etc.—efficiency often becomes second to catering to all these needs. It should stay in the forefront. It’s a cost-control measure. We’re looking out for the long-term financial viability of the district,” according to Cara Carmichael, a manager in RMI’s buildings practice.

The school district wanted to use a holistic approach in design and construction, involving every member of the project team, in order to reach its sustainability goals. “I realized that if we wanted to have any chance of achieving our goals, we would have to do something different than what we’ve done in the past,” says Medwetz. “As an architect I realized we needed to use an integrative design process. This is a total paradigm shift for our staff and the district, so we needed to bring some experts in to train us and set the expectations. That’s why we called RMI.”

RMI held two workshops with BVSD, one on deep retrofits and one on new construction. Workshop attendees included school district key decision makers, project managers, architects, engineers, contractors, and McKinstry representatives, the firm that is doing the energy modeling and commissioning. “All the stakeholders were present,” according to RMI Senior Associate Brett Bridgeland. “It was great to have everyone in the same room, talking about the issues and sharing information, which is not that common.” The group discussed different packages from business as usual to super aggressive, and the energy efficiency measures to make each happen.

According to Medwetz, the workshops set the expectations for the entire design team and showed them the district was serious about the goals. “We can have the project requirements written out, but it’s much more tangible to have all the designers, contractors, and project managers in the same room hearing the same thing.”

Participants in the new construction workshop focused on one new K-8 school and the three elementary schools that are being rebuilt, and on how to reach a target of 25 EUI, which would more than double the efficiency, cutting in half the energy use and costs of the average 58.2 EUI for k-12 schools. The preliminary modeling shows the four schools with an average energy savings of 67 percent, and reaching an EUI of under 30. According to Medwetz, those three buildings alone would save the district $58,000 a year. “If we reach all our goals in the bond, the entire district would be 29 percent more efficient, saving nearly $500,000 a year in utility bills,” he says. “These savings could be used directly in the classrooms.”

This project has impact well beyond the Boulder Valley School District. “BVSD can serve as a beacon for the approximately 12,000 U.S. school districts and drive a more sustainable future for the next generation of students who pass through their halls,” says Olgyay. While the bond funding is a unique opportunity, even school districts that don’t have bond funding have other ways to finance and achieve the goals of net-zero energy, such as energy performance contracting, power purchase agreements, and other public institution energy efficiency financing mechanisms.

This project also has benefits beyond environmental and economic. “This project is important not only for financial reasons, but also for the health and happiness of the kids. They learn better in well-planned, sustainable environments,” says Carmichael, who has two children enrolled in Boulder Valley schools.

BVSD’s sustainability staff provide resources to district teachers to help them incorporate information about bond work at the schools relating to efficiency and sustainability, live energy data by school and district wide, and general concepts of green building into lesson planning. The Energy Team also runs an annual energy challenge, where schools compete to reduce energy through behavior changes and education.

The three new elementary schools are slated to be open for the 2017–2018 school year. With this project BVSD is setting a great example for school districts around the country of how we can make a tremendous impact on school costs, the environment, and student health and education through deep retrofits and efficient building. “The school buildings are where the kids are spending a lot of really critical moments in their lives,” says Olgyay, who also has two children in the school district. “For us to be increasing their awareness of energy issues, putting sustainability and ethical qualities front and center, helps with the overall pedagogy of our kids learning about energy issues and being able to take it out into the world.”

Photo courtesy of Boulder High School via Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0).