Can ‘Net Zero’ Help Reinvent Cities?

“Net zero,“ which refers to buildings that produce enough energy to offset what they use, is a growing buzzword in residential and commercial construction. Net zero, sometimes called “zero energy”, helps pave the way for sustainability and savings on utility costs. Tim Weisheyer, broker-owner of Dream Builders Realty in Kissimmee, Fla., also hopes to show how net zero buildings can help recast Osceola County as a tech-forward hub. Weisheyer has been an integral part of the process of building what reportedly is the first net zero high school in the state of Florida.

In recent years, a handful of public and private net zero K-12 school projects have popped up across the country. School districts are largely using it as a way to lower utility costs and reduce operational costs. In Osceola County, city leaders want to also use its newly-built net zero school as a model for sustainability and as a teaching tool for the next generation of tech workers. That could prove beneficial to its economy, too: High-paying tech jobs have long been the silver bullet behind several leading housing markets.

Osceola County expects its population to double by 2040 and boasts a rapidly evolving economy. Tourism, including Walt Disney World Resort, and agriculture are its two main industries, but Weisheyer says the county is on the cusp of adding technology as a top-tier draw. Weisheyer, who serves on the Chamber of Commerce in his community, traveled with business leaders and lawmakers to Austin, Texas, to see how the city revitalized its economic development from a college town into a major tech hub.

From that, NeoCity was born in Osceola County to reinvent a 500-acre tract of land into a master-planned community that will serve as a tech hub for Central Florida. Weisheyer, who also serves as chairman of the Osceola County School Board, realized schools needed to part of that vision. “We need to make sure to develop education programs to develop the skilled workforce that we would need to support this,” he says.

As a byproduct of that vision, NeoCity Academy is set to open in August. The 500-student, demonstration high school has 45,000-square-feet and cost $15 million to build. As a net zero building, operational costs will remain low and unlock savings to the school district over the long term. The building was designed to use 76 percent less energy than a typical public school in the area. NeoCity Academy is dubbed as an immersive learning school that offers curriculum paths in the engineering, biomedical and cybersecurity fields.

The design of the building was well-thought-out to focus on energy efficiency, including a focus on air-tightness and the positioning of classrooms to maximize natural light and help lower utility costs. Solar panels on rooftops and walkway awnings also add electricity to its grid. LED lighting, integrated functions for water management and sensors throughout the building also help monitor indoor air quality and temperatures. The building’s energy production and usage will be displayed in real time on a building educational dashboard that can be used by teachers and students as part of the curriculum.

While not well-known, the south central Kansas town of Greensburg is an environmental survivor. The town was nearly destroyed by a tornado in 2007 but was rebuilt as one of the most eco-conscious places in the world. It was the first U.S. City to fully adopt LED street lights, and it gets 100% of its power from renewable energy.