in his first interview since taking up his position.
There also needs to be a radical overhaul in how energy is produced, including an expansion of wind farms and wave power, if the target is going to be achieved.
"We are going from a position of really quite old-fashioned construction to very high-level performance almost instantly," said Mr Nicholson. "We are expecting a radical transformation across the board. It's bloody difficult. I would not underestimate it for a minute."
But Mr Nicholson is confident that pilot schools will be up and running by the target date, and that the new wave of environmentally friendly buildings will follow.
"There is great potential," he said. "Schools are relatively straightforward buildings that will be replicated all over the country, so there's a huge test bed. As long as we share performance information, we can make good progress.
"Building Schools for the Future is a massive programme after a long period of doing sweet FA. Zero carbon is a brilliant goal and we have to get there."
Mr Nicholson, a commissioner at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe), the Government's architecture adviser, is a specialist in sustainable buildings. He will have to make an initial report to ministers before Christmas on how BSF can be used to create schools with no carbon footprint.
Under BSF, every secondary in England is supposed to be rebuilt or refurbished by 2020.
Since its launch, the programme's green credentials have been gradually ratcheted up, culminating in a pledge made in the Children's Plan to have zero carbon schools open eight years from now.
But early experiments in creating greener schools have not always proved successful.
St Francis of Assisi Academy in Liverpool was designed along environmentally friendly lines. But Mr Nicholson, who is an overall fan of the building, said cost-cutting had led to a number of automatic controls included in the original design being dropped.
"Now a caretaker has to open 13 different vents every time the sun comes out to make the school useable," he said.
"It's absolutely, completely daft, but is symptomatic of how the knowledge does not exist in the professions and industry. People always want to save money, yet the unforeseen consequences can be really drastic."
Mr Nicholson is expecting his role to last for the next two years, by which time he will have to produce a plan for how zero carbon schools can be delivered.
He said more data was needed on how much energy schools use and how it is divided between heating, cooling, lighting and power for kit such as computers.
About 40 per cent of the zero carbon problem will be solved by designing better buildings, but the rest will be down to improvements in equipment and the way teachers and pupils use the schools, he said.
Changing people's behaviour to reduce energy consumption will be a big factor in achieving the goal.
The further education sector is ahead of schools in gathering information about its carbon usage, Mr Nicholson said, adding that schools are "way back" in that regard.
The extra costs involved in building zero carbon schools are currently unclear. Cabe will be commissioning work on the matter, although previous studies have suggested it will increase building costs by about 3 per cent.
It is estimated that schools now account for about 15 per cent of the carbon footprint of the public sector. But the zero carbon target only applies to newly built schools, rather than those being refurbished.
If every new secondary school built after 2016 were to be zero carbon, that would still account for only one in four secondaries in England. Currently there are around 3,300 secondaries, although that number is expected to fall as some schools are merged or closed under the BSF programme.
If government targets are met, it could mean around 750 secondaries being zero carbon by the time the building project ends.
Mairi Johnson, director of enabling at Cabe and soon to be head of design at Partnerships for Schools, the agency delivering the BSF programme, said it was crucial that progress in building new schools did not slow down while zero carbon designs were improved. But a new approach to energy production will be needed, with schools and other buildings working together on big renewable energy projects, she said.
"The bolt-on things - like small wind turbines - that make a school look like a green building actually don't help that much," Miss Johnson said. "We are going to have to bite the bullet and get serious about other sources of power."
Mr Nicholson said councils would have to become better at joining up different funding streams to build new power plants.
He also called for more high performance building materials to be made in the UK, although he said businesses were capable of reaching tougher standards.
"There is nothing like a threat to make people perform," he said.
EXPERTS TO SEND POOR DESIGNS BACK TO DRAWING BOARD
A new design threshold - or benchmark - is to be introduced to stop the building of substandard schools.
The extra power will be given to experts at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe), who advise local authorities on their plans for new secondary schools under the Building Schools for the Future programme.
Cabe called for the threshold to be introduced following concerns about the quality of designs it was shown.
Figures released in July showed that 21 of the 24 school designs that were submitted for planning approval were either "not yet good enough" or "mediocre", according to the Cabe design panels.
These experts will now be given the power to send poor designs back to the drawing board.
Previously, ministers said no decision had been taken on the proposed design threshold. But an official announcement confirming its introduction is expected soon.