Forest Edge on cutting edge of sustainability

Feature Forest Edge Sustainability Panel
Rooftop solar panels combine with underground geothermal system to make Forest Edge Elementary School the first net-zero school in Wisconsin.

With its one-two sustainable punch, the recently opened Forest Edge Elementary School, Wisconsin’s first net-zero energy public school, is ready to serve as a model for capturing, controlling, and maximizing the economic value of sunshine and ground temperatures.

Part of the Oregon School District, the school opened in the fall of 2020 with no students, thanks to the pandemic, but also as all-electric building equipped with a 646-kilowatt (kw) rooftop solar array, a ground-source heat pump system, on-site battery storage, and no gas connection. That one-two punch, solar on the roof and geothermal below ground, is still a rare combination, but it’s one that has been embraced in the Oregon School District and honored with a renewable energy award by Renew Wisconsin, which praised the district for pushing the envelope on sustainability.

At least one district resident appreciated the push. Andrew Weiland, business manager for the Oregon School District, recalls attending a luncheon at the Deer Park Buddhist Center when a man approached him. “He came up to me at lunch and actually said, ‘Hey, I hear you guys are going to a referendum for a new building. Wouldn’t it be cool if it was net-zero?’ And I said, ‘We haven’t really been telling many people about it, but it is a net-zero building.’ So, there is a lot of interest in our area for sure. I’m not sure that extends everywhere, but definitely in the Oregon district, it was a selling point.”

Weiland acknowledged it’s still a fairly unique way to heat, cool, and power a building where many people congregate. According to Weiland, there is a school in the northern suburbs of Chicago that is a net-zero school, but it’s quite a bit smaller than Forest Edge. There also is one in Virginia and one in Utah, but they are not overly prevalent in this area.

To his knowledge, there aren’t many systems in commercial buildings that try to match energy used with energy captured. “I think there is a little bit of solar typically, and there are a lot of people doing geothermal, but I don’t know that it’s extremely prevalent where you’re trying to match the amount of energy that you’re producing and making with how much you’re using,” he states. “I think that’s fairly unique right now.

“Around the area, geothermal is a pretty prevalent technology that exists in a lot of the new school buildings, but nobody had combined the two and tried to figure out how to offset with the solar panels, as far as creating an amount of electricity,” he adds. “The other thing that’s unique about this building is that it’s all-electric. There is no other fuel source that comes through the building, so we are totally run by kilowatts. We create kilowatts [providing 300 kw for Madison Gas and Electric] and we also use [100] kilowatts.”

While part of the Oregon School District, the 130,000-square-foot school is actually located in Fitchburg at 4848 Brassica Road, east of the U.S. Hwy. 14–Lacy Road interchange. The district had no problem keeping the building warm during the recent February cold snap because the geothermal loop uses glycol, a substance used in antifreeze. Weiland is pretty confident that when there is another cold snap and all the kids are back in school, there will be no problem heating the building. The district was on a hybrid online and in-class schedule until April 12, when both morning and afternoon K–6 cohorts came together in Forest Edge four days a week (except Wednesdays).

“There were a couple of areas where we needed to adjust a couple of things, but once we got those adjusted, even during this cold snap, we had no problem,” Weiland states. “The system actually is able to function even when the ground temperature is very, very low, like even freezing, which is kind of the advantage of geothermal. Usually, it never gets that low, but we could still draw heat out of that temperature. The geothermal loop actually uses an antifreeze type of substance (glycol), so it won’t freeze ever. If it does, we are all in a lot of trouble.”

That would mean unimaginable cold, even for Wisconsin, and so that partly explains why the system is more than a curiosity for visiting school district officials contemplating their own building programs. Other Wisconsin school districts and various architectural firms have contacted Weiland to talk about the system for use in their own building plans, which have to be approved by the public in a referendum. For school districts contemplating a referendum, sustainability and energy efficiency features could be another strong selling point to voters. “We’ve had quite a bit of interest,” Weiland says. “Even during the pandemic, we’ve presented a number of different times, both to a group of architects from Wisconsin, as well as to the state school boards conference in January.

“We have taken some school districts through it already,” he adds. “Madison schools went through it because they are doing a significant upgrade. I’m not sure which technologies they are looking to incorporate, but they were interested in it. We’re hoping that a lot of districts want to come and see it and see how it works.”

A web-based portal is under development for people to monitor how the building performs and serve as a teaching point. “That’ not only good for other people to be able to look at it and see how it performs, but also for our school kids,” Weiland states. “We really want our building to be a learning tool for them to understand that, and not just the students at Forest Edge but students throughout our school district.”

One student who is a 2016 graduate of Oregon High School is studying sustainable engineering and pursuing a master’s degree at UW–Madison. He wants to do an analysis of the system at Forest Edge for one of his projects, which pleases Weiland more than any other kind of interest. “It’s great that there is that kind of interest,” he notes, “and we’re willing to share with whoever wants to look at it.”

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