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OR Middle School Makes the Grade for "Zero Net Energy"

PHOTO: The science and music building at Hood River Middle School is one of a tiny but growing number of "Zero Net Energy" buildings, designed to make its own power and preserve resources. Photo courtesy American Institute of Architects.
PHOTO: The science and music building at Hood River Middle School is one of a tiny but growing number of "Zero Net Energy" buildings, designed to make its own power and preserve resources. Photo courtesy American Institute of Architects.
January 15, 2014

HOOD RIVER, Ore. - Two Oregon buildings are getting national attention for maximum energy-efficiency - and one is passing its benefits on to the next generation.

For three years, Hood River Middle School's unique addition has been where students learn firsthand about creating solar and geothermal energy, saving water, growing food and improving their environment - in a facility packed with self-sustaining systems. It's known as a "Zero Net Energy" building, one of just a couple hundred in the country.

Not a week goes by that someone doesn't stop in to take a tour, said science teacher Michael Becker.

"What's great is that they show up thinking I'm going to lead the tour - and that is not the case. I turn 'em loose with a bunch of kids," Becker said, "and they come back with their chins all scraped up from their jaws dropping open so much, of kids that just blow their minds with a functional vocabulary about systems."

According to a new report from the New Buildings Institute, while the number of Zero Net Energy buildings is still few, it has more than doubled since the group's last tally in 2012. About one-third of the ZNE buildings are schools. The other Oregon example in the report is Painter Hall, in Salem's Pringle Creek community.

Part of what has made Hood River's building work so well, Becker said, is that students are able to monitor the systems, so they see the impact of their everyday habits.

"We have solar systems on all kinds of schools - but no one ever sees them," he said. "They're up on the roof, there's no interaction with it, there's no anything. And so, bringing it into our daily interactions is what changes that behavior and changes that awareness."

He said the idea is that they may end up in all different locations and career fields, but students will take with them the knowledge they'll need to improve the places they live and work - in ways that won't seem out of the ordinary.

"We have a 14,000-gallon rain-catch tank that collects all of our water, and that's what flushes the toilets in the building - and that seems totally normal," he said. "We know how much energy the building's produced and how much we've used, and we look at it on the chart and that's totally normal. And it doesn't seem that far-fetched."

Hood River Middle School has won numerous awards for its science and music building.

The New Buildings Institute report said Zero Net Energy is achievable in all regions and climates - and even in some existing buildings.

The report is online at newbuildings.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR