Why Massachusetts Schools are Finally Embracing Net Zero Energy

There has never been a better time for K-12 schools to go net zero energy (NZE).

In Massachusetts, many school stakeholders have turned from net zero skeptics to fully-fledged advocates. In 2022 there were around 30 NZE and net zero ready school projects in various stages of design in Massachusetts, including six by SMMA.

A school building qualifies as NZE if it produces as much energy as it consumes (via on-site renewable energy) and does not use any fossil fuels. NZE status can be confirmed by analyzing utility bills and data recorded by the school’s HVAC systems after one year’s use.

Most headlines around NZE focus on commercial developments such as offices, labs, and residential buildings. But K-12 schools have a major, if underappreciated, role to play in the drive toward carbon neutrality.

Solar panels on the roof of the Learning Commons at the Lincoln School

Above: The Lincoln School. Designed by SMMA and EwingCole, it is the first ever net zero renovation public school in Massachusetts

Why now? 

In Massachusetts, environmental concerns alone do not explain the shift to NZE. Rather, net zero projects have become more affordable and feasible thanks to cheaper renewables, government cash incentives, and advances in sustainable design.

The financial case for NZE is stronger than ever. By using less energy, communities benefit from much lower operational costs over time. Today, for SMMA-designed net zero and net zero ready schools, the average “payback”—cost captured back through energy savings—is between seven and 12 years. Given these schools are designed and built to last at least 50 years, communities can look forward to a minimum of four decades of savings. This performance would not have been possible 10 years ago. 

Communities across Massachusetts are taking note. In Concord, MA, we are designing a net zero ready middle school with a predicted payback of just 7.3 years. The Town was swayed by the prospect of the school’s utility bills showing major cost savings from Day One. And after breaking even in Year Seven, the school will enjoy a further 40-50 years of low energy use and costs. 

Sustainability metrics for Hunnewell Elementary, Lincoln K-8, and Concord Middle schools

Above: Three of our most recent net zero school designs in Massachusetts. Energy Use Intensity (EUI) is the headline measurement of the energy efficiency of a building's design and/or operation—the lower the better. NZE buildings typically have an EUI below 30.

State-run grant programs have also smoothed the path to more NZE schools. Massachusetts offers financial support for net zero projects through the MassSave utility incentive program, while MassCEC offers a range of clean energy incentives in the form of grants.


When net zero ready is preferable to NZE

Many cost-wise communities are opting to build NZ ready schools, as opposed to fully fledged net zero projects (learn about the difference here). In most cases, this means leaving out the cost of solar PV installation from the project budget and entering into a power-purchase agreement (PPA) in which a third party installs, owns, and operates the energy system.

One example is in Andover, MA, where we are designing a net zero ready elementary and pre-school. In a few years’ time, the community will be able to reach full net zero energy by adding solar panels to the building's PV-ready roof and installing solar canopies in the parking lot. 

Meanwhile, construction has started at the net zero ready Hunnewell Elementary School in Wellesley, MA. Designed by SMMA, the school boasts a solar PV roof that will provide 60% of the required load for NZE. 


The climate change factor

Aside from hard-nosed economics, there is also the issue of resiliency. Many towns, cities, and districts in Massachusetts are pushing ahead with climate change readiness plans that include pledges to build more net zero energy buildings.

One such town is Lincoln, MA, whose fully net zero energy K-8 school features a robust building enclosure designed by SMMA. Aside from being a core net zero strategy, robust enclosures make buildings more resistant to climate change. Lincoln K-8 School now serves as an emergency facility for the town during dangerous weather events.

The recent case of Babcock Ranch in Florida, where a climate-resilient, 100%-solar powered town made headlines after surviving Hurricane Ian unscathed, vindicates this approach.

Net zero energy section plan of the Lincoln school in Lincoln, MA

Above: The Lincoln School in Lincoln, MA achieves net zero energy through a high-performance building enclosure, efficient design choices, and renewable energy.

Back in Concord, the new middle school plans to couple their solar PV system with an energy storage battery system. This will enable the building to access backup power during any power outage caused by a climate event. It will also lift the school’s status from net zero ready to fully-fledged net zero energy.


The 'new normal'

Once a mere aspiration, net zero energy buildings are fast become the norm. The march toward NZE and carbon neutrality is happening on a global scale. At last year’s COP26 Summit, major polluters such as the U.S., Canada, China, and the E.U. announced plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. 

Closer to home, the City of Boston announced that all newly constructed buildings over 20,000 square feet must meet net zero energy targets as part of zoning laws. Massachusetts recently codified its own carbon neutral 2050 pledge into law, with several municipalities following suit. And at SMMA, our Sustainability practice has committed to the goal of designing all our projects for net zero energy by 2030 in line with the AIA 2030 Challenge

SMMA has vast experience working with schools and local communities to design NZE and net zero ready buildings. To start a conversation about how to make your school a net zero project, reach out to Martine Dion, SMMA’s Director of Sustainability, or Ethan Seaman, SMMA Energy Analyst.