New net-zero Ag Science Center runs on solar and wind

The first and only net-zero building in the Arlington area is the Arlington ISD’s new Agricultural Science Center. As a net-zero facility, it utilizes a solar array and wind turbine to produce more energy annually than it consumes. On average it produces more energy than it uses each day and pushes the surplus onto the local power grid.

On sunny summer days, the Ag Science Center’s solar array produces about one megawatt of electricity, and the wind turbine produces about 1.7 kilowatts per day. Solar panels produce DC current, so inverters convert the DC voltage off the array into AC electricity that the building can use. None of the electricity is stored, so the Ag Science Center uses what it needs and then pushes any surplus onto the local power grid. Equipped with a bi-directional meter, the Ag Science Center can also buy electricity from the grid whenever solar and wind are not producing enough, like at night. The facility also has four rain water storage tanks and uses the collected water for irrigation and other purposes.

(See how much energy the Ag Center is producing on a daily basis.)

“This is the start of using solar to lower our energy use,” said Danny Helm, AISD energy manager.

Not only does it lower energy use, it also lowers energy bills. And the excess energy that the Ag Science Center produces and delivers to the local power grid provides the district a renewable energy credit on its monthly power bill.

“The idea of being environmentally conscience is not just reducing, reusing, and recycling,” said Kelly Horn, AISD executive director of facility services. “It has grown to include energy conservation and efficiency.”

Energy efficiency is now a major priority for the AISD. In fact, since 2010-2011, the AISD has reduced the amount of electricity it uses per square foot by 28 percent.

“The district as a whole has gone a long way toward being more efficient,” Helm said.

But Helm, Horn and the district are always looking for more ways to improve. With the 2014 Bond program, they recognized an opportunity to take their energy efficiency efforts a step further.

“We wanted to bring something into the district that would be a teaching tool for the future,” Helm said.

Thus, the district coupled its energy goals with plans to build a bond-funded ag education facility, and then worked with VLK Architects to design and build the net-zero Agricultural Science Center.

The Ag Science Center’s purposeful design keeps energy consumption low, ensuring the energy production from the building’s solar array and wind turbine is sufficient.

Good ventilation is key. One main corridor – wide enough for pickup trucks and animal trailers – runs the length of the building and has large garage doors on either end. That, combined with large fans and strategically-placed vents, ensures good air flow. LED lighting and high-efficiency HVAC equipment also keep energy consumption low.

“It’s a small building,” Helm said, designed with energy efficiency in mind.”

It was also designed with ag education in mind. The 23,000 square-foot building houses 54 flexible-fencing pens for goats and sheep, 14 heifer pens, rabbit pens, an animal exercise area, two large classrooms and a metal construction lab.

Open less than a year – animals, teachers and students moved in during October 2017 – the Ag Center is already providing new opportunities for many Arlington students.

“Because of the Ag Science Center, now students from all six AISD high schools can take ag classes,” said Ginger Polster, principal of the Ag Science Center and the AISD Dan Dipert Career and Technical Center.  (Read more about the Ag Center’s impact on students.)

Interest in ag education is growing, and the new facility is a big reason why. Classes at the Ag Science Center are already maxed out for the 2018-2019 school year with 559 high school students enrolled, and the number of ag teachers in the district has grown from three to 10 in the last three years to keep pace with student course requests.

But the district doesn’t view the Ag Center as just a high school building. The vision for the facility includes students of all ages. Elementary and junior high students will get to visit the Ag Science Center as well, experience agriculture and learn lessons like where their food and clothes come from. And they’ll learn about energy, electricity and conservation.

As part of that vision, the entrance to the Ag Science Center features a 55-inch interactive touch screen that will soon display a dashboard showing the Center’s production and usage of energy. Students will be able to see in real-time how it all works. And since the Ag Science Center is sub-metered, the dashboard will show how much energy is being used by different building systems, like HVAC or lighting, at any given time.

Helm has been coordinating efforts with Danielle Reynolds, K-12 science coordinator in curriculum and instruction, to further enhance the use of the features of the Ag Science Center. Plans to include other data sources on the dashboard to be used in classroom instruction are under way. Real time data on weather and moon phases, local watershed information, animal life cycles and interactive games are to be embedded in the dashboard soon.

"Ideally, we would like to eventually include live feeds of the animals if possible," Reynolds said." The idea is to help elementary and secondary students see the connectivity of living and non-living things in our environment."

“The AISD’s new Ag Science Center helps to make these ideas a reality for our students and our community,” Horn said. “Our students will experience a facility unlike any other in the nation. The net-zero concept is not new to school construction, but the idea is still in its infancy. It just makes good sense to combine proven technologies and nature together to lessen our impact on the environment and, at the same time, help to educate our students.”