The growing net-zero energy building landscape

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Buildings are currently one of the world’s biggest energy consumers and carbon emitters. This needs to change. One of the most substantial steps building owners can take in reducing their carbon footprint, and expenses is investing in Net-Zero Energy Buildings (NZEB). As environmental concerns take the center stage, NZEB will become an increasingly common method of decreasing climate impacts. 


Our energy inefficiencies are a problem

Many buildings of the past and present are missing the mark in terms of energy efficiency. In fact, according to the Alliance To Save Energy, buildings that house our businesses, livelihoods, and homes constitute 40% of the total energy consumption and 70% of the pressure on the overall electric grid in America. 

Energy inefficiencies in buildings are usually the result of poor design, a lack of renewable infrastructure, and wasteful appliances. Energy Star, a branch of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that 30% of total energy in a building is wasted.

The good news is that a number of technologies exist to increase energy efficiency and improve resource allocation. Net-zero energy buildings utilize these technologies to create spaces that are ecologically and socially sustainable. 


What is a Net-Zero Energy Building?

A net-zero energy building, also known as a zero energy building, is a high-efficiency building that produces as much energy as it consumes. This translates to the consumption of zero net energy. NZE buildings are addressing net energy consumption and emissions by offsetting energy consumption and carbon emissions with clean, self-generated energy. This is achieved through a combination of: 

  • Energy-efficient practices aimed at reducing energy waste and harmful emissions 
  • Technologies that create renewable energy onsite (thereby offsetting a building’s energy usage) 

While many net-zero energy buildings are newly constructed, it is also possible to convert existing structures into net-zero energy buildings. 



Going green is priceless

A current misperception is that NZE buildings are too expensive to build. Ms. Elbaum, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council believes that this high-cost misconception is causing even minor progress to be under threat. As the climate crisis becomes more and more urgent, growing environmental concerns cause many to shift away from this misguided mindset. 

The urgency to combat climate change has captured the world’s attention, with industries looking introspectively to hold themselves accountable. Countries around the world have implemented ambitious initiatives and projects aimed at dramatically reducing their environmental impact through net-zero energy. In fact, it is estimated that one-sixth of the world’s economy will soon be covered by some type of carbon neutral/energy conservation initiative. Some global examples of countries and states pushing for energy efficiency include:

  • Suriname and Bhutan have already achieved carbon negative status 
  • Net-zero energy districts (NZED) across Europe, such as Val-de-Ruz in Switzerland, which aims to be completely energy self-sufficient by 2030, and Helsingor in Denmark, which aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050
  • France, the United Kingdom, Chile, Denmark, Portugal, and more have either pending or proposed legislation dictating action to reach a net-zero emission target by 2050
  • Through the adoption of the United States Department of Energy’s Net­Zero Energy Commercial Building Initiative, many strategic partners in the United States are aiming to achieve marketable net-zero energy buildings by 2025
  • New York’s Climate Leadership and Communities Protection Act, the country’s most aggressive energy legislation, requires New York’s energy sources to be completely carbon free by 2040 in hopes of reaching net-zero emission by 2050 
  • California’s Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan requires NZE for all new residential homes by the year 2020 and new commercial buildings by the year 2030. 

Net-zero energy buildings are a huge component in meeting carbon goals worldwide. The reality of NZEB is here and growing. To learn more about which countries are committing to a carbon-free future, take a look here


How does a building become net-zero? 

New or existing structures can become net-zero energy by producing as much energy onsite as is used throughout a building’s life cycle. This can be achieved through a number of cutting-edge technologies such as hot water panels, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, wind, geothermal, and biofuels. 

Buildings, old and new, will have to make several considerations when converting to the net-zero model. The first step will be the design process itself, including factors like HVAC systems, ventilation pathways, and window placements.


Maximizing energy efficiency: addressing HVAC systems

Heating and cooling systems of a traditional building account for roughly a quarter of its total energy expenditures, but can be extremely wasteful if handled incorrectly. Preventing heating and cooling loss goes a long way in preserving energy. It’s possible to optimize HVAC systems by selecting the right choice for your building and properly maintaining the systems. 

Investing in the right type of windows, doors, and insulation will put less demand on the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that manage the property. Utilizing the structures’ natural surroundings can help lessen energy consumption by letting owners and managers take advantage of natural lighting, ventilation, and heat.

The most important consideration when installing or retrofitting a heating or cooling system is the size. The “bigger is better” mentality is not always the most efficient. A properly sized unit will reduce noise, maintenance, and both upfront and long-term costs. 

Energy Star and other green certifications make it easier to determine a system’s energy impact and efficiency. For large scale projects, consult with an energy professional on the latest technology and techniques to optimize heating and cooling.


Producing energy to achieve net-zero

Buildings hoping to achieve net-zero energy often produce energy as a means of offsetting their consumption. One way to do this is by investing in a solar energy system to balance consumption with production, and possibly store excess energy to sell back to the grid. Solar panel technology has been increasing in efficiency year after year for the past two decades. The dissemination of technology has allowed corporations to invest in research, economies of scale, and distribution, which all lower costs over time. The increased efficiency of solar cells and the hardware has made solar products more affordable. 

Storing solar energy will be one of the next big frontiers in the green tech industry. Both commercial and residential power storage will go a long way in reducing overall consumption. Giving consumers the option to generate their own energy to become self-sufficient, or even sell, will allow for a net-zero or even net-positive future.

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