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Wilde Lake Middle in Columbia becomes Maryland's first 'net-zero energy' school

The new Wilde Lake Middle School building in Columbia comes with 2,000 solar panels.

Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia is making its debut this week as Maryland's first "net-zero energy" school — meaning the $33 million building's extensive solar panel array will help it generate as much energy as it uses.

The new school is significantly larger than the 48-year-old building it is replacing, and is designed to anticipate enrollment growth in Howard County, officials said. It was built on the same campus as the former Wilde Lake school, which will be demolished for athletic fields and a bus loop.

The school officially opened Monday as students returned from an 11-day winter break. The weather was dreary, but Principal Anne Swartz said she noticed a buzz as they arrived at the new facility.

"Middle school students sometimes are quiet because it's 7:45 in the morning," she said. "They were not quiet. There were smiles, there was a pep in the step."

"The size and all the technology is amazing," said student Ashley Maharaj, 13. "I was glad to see everybody smiling on a Monday."

The roof holds 1,400 solar panels and another 600 panels collect sunlight from the ground, said Scott Washington, director of school construction for the Howard County school system.

The school also has energy-efficient architecture and insulation, a geothermal heat pump system, and lights programmed to respond to the amount of sunlight in a room and turn off when a room is empty, he said.

"On days when it's cloudy, you'll use more energy," Washington said. "On days it's sunny, you'll use less because you're using more of the natural light of the building."

Construction of the school was aided by a $2.7 million grant from the Maryland Energy Administration.

Students can actually check on the school's electricity production in real time. There's an "energy kiosk" in the main hallway that displays how the building is performing.

Science teacher Doug Spicher is already using the system as a teaching tool. The panels feed data into a graph that shows how much energy is being used and produced at any given time, he said.

"When I showed them this week, they're like, 'Wait a minute, why aren't we producing more electricity?'" he said. Then he gestured to the rain outside his classroom window. "We talked about the cloud cover, whereas last week, when it was a much sunnier week, more was produced."

Spicher, who said he has solar panels on his home, is excited to look for trends in Wilde Lake Middle's energy levels. Usage, for example, should spike on Mondays after bottoming out over the weekend, when the school is empty.

"They're anxious to see what is going to happen when we get into the warmer months and the sun is more directly overhead — how that's going to change our production," he said.

Spicher teaches grades seven and eight, and hopes to experiment with his students to see whether turning off the lights in his classroom or even a hallway can nudge energy usage down in any immediately measurable way.

"That's very valuable for kids to be able to see," he said.

Bruce Gist, executive director for capital planning for Howard schools, said the building was "a significant challenge and quite an honor to construct."

The construction team had to learn to use new techniques and materials to lower the building's energy use index enough to achieve the net-zero status, he said.

He said setting that goal and putting the tools in place to achieve it, "speaks to the county's and the school system's commitment for energy conservation."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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