In October, graduate students in Lehigh’s Energy Systems Engineering program toured Sustainable Energy Fund’s Net Zero Building, in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, to observe energy-efficient building practices in the real world.

The 15,000-square-foot facility, which currently serves as the nonprofit organization’s headquarters, was constructed to demonstrate to Lehigh Valley contractors and corporations that a “net zero” building—one that generates as much energy as it uses over the course of a year—can be built at the market rate.

The building is equipped a multitude of features, from strategically insulated walls and floors to sensor-guided lighting and HVAC systems to a sophisticated rooftop solar panel array—that maximize energy efficiency of the space, while also ensuring the comfort and satisfaction of its occupants. 

ESE students visit Sustainable Energy Fund’s Net Zero Building
Energy Systems Engineering graduate students and the ESE program's director, Dr. Rudy Shankar (left), recently toured Sustainable Energy Fund’s Net Zero Building in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania.

According to John Costlow, president and CEO of Sustainable Energy Fund (SEF), the building’s estimated energy use intensity (EUI) is approximately 21 kBtu per square foot, achieving an Energy Star Rating of 97 and performing better than 97% of similar buildings nationwide.

The students learned about the unique RFP process the organization used for the project: SEF first set a maximum budget and then searched for an architect and developer willing to meet the challenge. In selecting features to include in the building, SEF used an economic approach, only targeting energy efficiency measures with a “per kWh saved” cost less than or equal to that of the “per kWh generated” cost of the solar system.

Contractors can replicate the commercially viable approach and techniques used to construct the building to make a profit. Overall, Costlow said, construction of the building cost around $5.5 million, which is approximately $1 million in excess of the cost to construct a similar building just to code. The expected return on investment for the building is nine to 15 years.

Costlow emphasized to the students that similar buildings are often built as “vanity projects” and supported by donor funding. SEF’s effort to construct a commercially viable net-zero energy building, he said, serves an important model and example for other companies.  

—Laura Marsiglio ’21 is a master’s student in Lehigh’s Energy Systems Engineering program 


Energy Systems Engineering at Lehigh University

Lehigh's 30-credit master’s (M.Eng.) degree program in Energy Systems Engineering (ESE) provides the tools and training necessary for young scientists and engineers to address the emerging challenges of the energy and power industry and advance in their careers to positions of leadership.

During their studies, graduate students encounter business and management issues that are critical in this rapidly changing field. They acquire specialized knowledge that allows them to tackle challenges facing the U.S. utility infrastructure, its operations, and its environmental impact.

Full-time students complete the program in 10 months; a three-year part-time track is also offered for working professionals. Coursework is drawn from three core areas: energy generation (including coal, nuclear, oil and gas, fusion, and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar), transmission and distribution/smart grid (covering infrastructure systems, security, interconnections, and distribution optimization), and energy and the environment (including climate change, clean coal technologies, and nuclear waste issues). Each student also engages in a non-thesis industry-specific project that leverages related Lehigh research endeavors or addresses an issue identified by one of the program's industry sponsors.

Applications are currently being accepted. Visit

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