By Alyssa Engebretson
Forest Edge Elementary opened in September of 2020 as the first net-zero energy school in Wisconsin. According to the New Building Institute it is the largest verified Net Zero School Educational building in North America. The school features a geothermal heating/ cooling pump, over 1,700 solar panels, and does not require the use of natural gas. This past year the facility used 713,275 kWh and with the on-site solar systems while producing 737,530 kWh of electricity, which is 24,255 kWh more than it consumed. For reference, a typical Wisconsin home uses 8,500 kWh/ year. This means Forest Edge produced enough electricity to cover its own usage plus enough to power a typical Wisconsin home for almost 3 years!
The Oregon School District has a long-standing history of prioritizing long-term sustainability, especially with respect to energy efficiency. Oregon School District’s Director of Communications, Erika Mundinger adds, “Our district has always had a vision for the future. Our school board members are continually engaged in strategic planning efforts and are committed to having great spaces for the kids as well as a focus on sustainability.” At their 2014 referendum they committed, and since installed, three solar arrays and two geothermal systems at schools in their district. And in 2016 the school board approved a position paper that emphasised the importance of educating students in the context of an evolving world. This guiding document affirms the need to provide students with the tools they need when it involves energy solutions and sustainability.
The central theme throughout Forest Edge Elementary’s facility is “energy grounded in nature.” Learning opportunities are embedded throughout the building, such as educational environmental graphics in the hallways and classrooms that evoke discussions about sustainability with students. The school features a viewing area to showcase their solar arrays and are in the last stages of installing interactive monitors that display the school’s energy use in real-time. The monitors will be yet another learning tool for the students. “Students in our district get to learn about net-zero and geothermal, which is a unique opportunity, so it’s of great value to our students,” notes Kerri Modjeski, the Principal at Forest Edge.
The school’s Business Manager and lead visionary for Forest Edge Elementary, Andy Weiland, has worked in the Oregon School District for over 22 years. He cares deeply about the children in the community and always has their best interest in mind. Mundinger mentions, “Andy is kid-centered and always sees it through the student’s eyes... we build schools for kids and our community values doing the right thing.”
The school features learning opportunities within the building and outside, including a community garden, a pollinator garden, and outdoor learning spaces for the students to explore. The school also offers an after school program where a naturalist facilitates activities with students, like building bat houses, collecting owl pellets and snowshoeing.
Currently, the school has about 430 students that range from kindergarteners to 5th grade and they are excited to see more families join the school community. From its inception, Forest Edge has been supported by the school board, faculty and community members. Everyone was enthusiastic about the vision for the elementary school and its sustainable features. Mundinger emphasises, “We did this together with our community. We had lots of listening sessions and community input. It was really a community effort.”
Weiland and others in the district have prioritized making small improvements in schools, leading to big strides for sustainability in the Oregon School District. Although Forest Edge is a great example, a number of improvements are happening throughout the district. Weiland mentions, “I like to say: we have to crawl, before we walk, before we run.” Mundinger adds, “Andy takes every opportunity he can to make enhancements to other schools by adding solar arrays and other technologies…constant continual improvement is a key part of our culture.”
As a net-energy school with a highly engaged and motivated school board, Forest Edge Elementary is an excellent model for future sustainable schools. Weiland and Mundinger regularly give facility tours to school districts in Wisconsin who are looking to build new schools from the ground up. And further, Forest Edge is inspiring other types of sustainability-focused public buildings in the Oregon area in addition to schools.. With exemplary schools and new public buildings in the works, Forest Edge Elementary is setting an example that will continue to be noticed throughout Oregon, Wisconsin and beyond.
The Oregon School District's Forest Edge School is a great example of how Dane County local governments are leading on efficiency and climate action. The Office of Energy & Climate Change is excited to share climate success stories like this one.