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Roadmap to Zero Net for California Schools
A Green Technology Interview with David Thorman and Theresa Townsend


by Racquel Palmese

At the 2007 Green California Schools Summit, California State Architect David Thorman startled a packed auditorium when he announced a plan calling for all new schools in California to be “Zero Net,” or “Grid Neutral,” by 2010. This would lead to energy savings throughout California’s more than 1,000 school districts of some $1 billion a year and a reduction of 2.2 million tons of CO2.  Designing schools that are self-sufficient energy producers in such a short time frame seemed an almost unimaginable leap at the time, but Thorman and Theresa Townsend, Senior Architect for the California Department of General Services, say that achieving the goal is not only possible, it’s probable. And they are creating a roadmap to get there. In an interview with Green Technology magazine, they explain how it will happen.

Define what it means for a school to be “Zero Net.”

David Thorman:  The definitions of these terms are still in flux in the energy community. We are referring to it as Zero Net, Net Zero or Grid Neutral. My definition is that you generate enough energy onsite, or within a school district, to be able to meet all your energy needs. You may take some energy off of the grid during peak energy use time, or you may give some energy back to the grid at a non-peak time. But you get it to the point where you're neutral, not taking more than you’re putting back, in terms of the grid.

Theresa Townsend: Ultimately, if you look at the big picture, it means that we're much less dependent on the grid. All of our energy use will be as efficient as we can get it, and then we're producing energy on top of that so that we're not completely dependent on the grid.

David Thorman:  Some community college districts, like LACCD (Los Angeles Community College District. See Green Technology article, “Off the Grid.”) that are trying to go off grid, meaning they're not even tied into the grid at all.

That's not part of your long range planning at the moment?

David Thorman:  No.

Theresa Townsend: We find that the grid is being powered more and more by green energy, especially here in California.

How are we doing in terms of achieving Zero Net for new schools?

David Thorman:  The concept (of Zero Net for new schools) was first presented at the Green California School Summit last December. We did a white paper, called Grid Neutral California Schools, which was discussed at a workshop during the event. The white paper calls for a series of workshops, initially it was four workshops. Now we've upped it to six. We are bringing in the best people we know for these workshops, which will go into detail in each of the six areas. We'll then take that information and compile it into a 'how to' book.

Theresa Townsend: It's also a set of solutions, a guidebook.

David Thorman:  The workshops are scheduled for September. The first is on comprehensive planning, because we strongly believe that you have to have the right team if you're going to do this. You need to bring in not just the architect and the engineer, but the financial people, the maintenance people, the solar people, whoever you're going to be working with. The idea is to plan comprehensively before you start any design work.

The second workshop will cover energy efficient design; the third will be on energy generating technology. We’ll look at all the different potential energy sources, from wind, to water, to sun, to geothermal. Whatever they are, we want to make sure we get them on the table so everybody knows that they exist and so they know what's of value and what's not. 

The fourth workshop will be on innovative funding, and that's probably the most important one. In fact, when we put the guidebook together, that may be our main theme. We'll make a business case for Zero Net that will be compelling enough to get everyone’s attention. The fifth workshop will focus on existing schools and what can be done to improve their performance. Generally when we talk about Zero Net, people are thinking of “green-field,” where you're starting from scratch, not “in-field,” where you’re rebuilding or improving existing buildings.

Theresa Townsend: That workshop will include benchmarking, metering and monitoring,  because the first thing to do with these schools is to find out how they're performing initially and then figuring out what you can do to improve their performance.

David Thorman:  Finally, the sixth workshop will cover maintenance and operations.

Are these workshops meant to inform the participants, or to glean participants’ knowledge and ideas?

David Thorman:  We are bringing in subject matter experts, and we’ll moderate. Some of them will be government people, but mostly outside professionals. We're identifying who they are in each of these areas now. Each workshop will have eight to ten people and will last a full day. Butte College will help us with the guide when we're ready to put it together, so they'll have a representative at each workshop. We'll brainstorm, we'll come up with the ideas, we'll focus in on what's critical, what's not, what's important. The idea is to make it as understandable and simple as possible.

A seventh workshop will occur in October. This will include architects, engineers, school board members, facilities people - a cross-section of the people that are going to be using the booklet, so that they can hear what we're talking about, give us feedback, help us vet the information that we've collected.

Theresa Townsend: We'll have one representative from each of the workshops to give presentations, so there'll be a summary of the previous six workshops presented throughout that one day. This will allow for a discussion of cross-cutting issues, too.

David Thorman:  The guidebook is for school board members and school superintendents, financial officers, the business officers. It’s a way to get their attention. We want to have this written in such a way that it's in their language, it's simple, it's straightforward, 50 pages or less.

Theresa Townsend: We'll be mailing one to every school district.

When will you be releasing it?

David Thorman:  The next Green Schools Summit in December. That's when we're going to unveil it.

There are dozens of schools in California that have been certified by CHPS (Collaborative for High Performance Schools) or LEED for Schools (USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Are these schools usually Zero Net schools?

David Thorman:  No, not at this point. But those organizations are working on their standards. My guess is that in a few years it will be a requirement.

Theresa Townsend: Ultimately, it will be mathematically established whether it's grid neutral, but there are not yet clear ways to make the determination of how much is your utility bill and how much are you producing? Some school districts do not have separate utility bills for each school, for example. There are logistics to be worked out.

So a LEED or CHPS school isn't necessarily an energy producing school. It's an energy efficient school.

Theresa Townsend: Right, energy efficiency is one of the components needed for certification as a high performance, or green school. It's a very important component because the more efficient a building is, the less energy the school will need to produce.

Besides the guidebook, what are other components of the roadmap to grid neutrality for schools?

David Thorman:  My goal is to have every new project that goes through DSA be grid neutral by the end of 2010. There's no statute or regulation that would require it, but that's a goal that we have and that's what we're trying to encourage. We’ll achieve Zero Net encouraging it, by showing that it’s economically feasible, that it makes good business sense to do it. And then by having the guidebook that shows what steps it will take to make it happen.

Rob Cook (director of  the Office of  Public School Construction (OPSC)) and I plan on doing a tour, probably early next year, hopefully to about 100 school districts. We’ll meet with their superintendents and school boards and talk about this idea, encourage it, and move it forward.

There are also some regulations being developed. They won’t require grid neutrality, but they are green regulations and will encourage it. The legislature's very interested in this. There's so much going on in terms of research, and the price of solar is coming down.

Theresa Townsend: Studies are showing that there's going to be a crossing point on the cost of solar versus regular energy by around 2015.

David Thorman:  With the price of gas and oil going up, there’s a major  incentive for research. So, it's a perfect storm in terms of making this happen.

Your presentation, Grid Neutral By Design, shows that one school district achieved energy savings of $638.8 million in a year in their high performance schools. That’s enough to hire thousands of new teachers, or buy millions of books and computers. Will these schools be able to capture those savings?

David Thorman:  Right now, the reality is school money comes from two pots. It comes from operating funds and it comes from the capital fund, and they don’t easily cross over.  But the other reality is that for every dollar you put in to move toward grid neutral or higher energy efficiency, you're going to save $10 to $20 on the operating side over time. If you were a business you would look at it from that standpoint. Unfortunately, schools don't look at it that way. They look at it in terms of, hey, if you take a dollar away from my operating side and put it into building, that's a dollar out of our teachers’ salaries. So, there's a big struggle with that issue, and my hope is that districts will find ways to solve this problem.

Theresa Townsend: Another way to look at it is that there are three main pots of money in a school or district. There are books and teachers, there's maintenance and repairs, and then there's building a school. None of these really commingle, and this is a problem. We really need to be looking at the overall life cycle costs for these buildings, not just the first cost of an energy savings measure with nowhere to reap the energy savings.

Are there indications of a trend towards Zero Net in school districts?

David Thorman:  There's already a tremendous amount of interest. I have not heard anything negative. Milpitas school district is a good example. They have a major program underway, trying to get to 80 percent grid neutral. They've got seven or eight new projects.

Also, school districts are trying innovative new programs, such as third party financing, or power purchase agreements, where they can have a company come in that actually installs a solar system and finances it. The school pays its utility bill to this company. After a period of time, 10 to 15 years, the school district ends up owning the installation.

Theresa Townsend: Milpitas has plans to put up freestanding shade structures with solar photovoltaics under a power purchase agreement with Bank of America and Chevron Energy Solutions. It's really a great effort on their part and it does prove that it can be done.

David Thorman:  They’ve done this without any encouragement from us. There's already a tremendous amount of interest out, so this guidebook is being created to help the leadership at the school districts to understand the idea of going for Zero Net so they support it. We're doing everything we can, step by step, to encourage districts, support them, make it easier for architects and engineers to get grid neutral solutions through DSA (Division of the State Architect). The ball is already rolling, the train's going down the tracks, and what we're doing is trying to grease the wheels a little bit.








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