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Net-Zero Energy Building

Net-Zero Building

Ashley Halligan, an analyst at Software Advice, asks whether or not net zero is a realistic expectation in Breaking Down Net Zero: Reality or Wishful Thinking?

By 2050, all commercial buildings must become net-zero.  By 2030, all federal facilities must be net-zero.  These ambitious targets were set by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

So… what does net-zero mean?

Also known as NZEB (Net-Zero Energy Building), net-zero building aims to match energy consumption with on-site production.  Though there are multiple definitions floating around, for our purposes “net-zero” refers to a building that produces the same amount of energy as it consumes in a year, flattening out the the building’s net consumption to carbon-neutral.

Net Zero Building

How is this “net-zero” status achieved?

There are essentially two basic methods of creating a net-zero building: retrofitting and ground-up initiatives.  The first step for either choice is to plan to minimize the building’s overall energy consumption.  For ground-up initiaves, this is handled in the planning process; retrofitting projects should make most changes ahead of time.

Before modifying the building or adding on-site renewable energy systems to existing infrastructure, some basic measures can be taken to reduce the amount of energy needed to run the facility.  This can be as simple as using LED lights, such as DirectLED Flourescent Replacement Tubes, or exchanging an old refrigerator for a Steca PF166.  When you’re shopping for appliances, you should always look for the Energy Star label.  Also, setting your programmable thermostat down a smidgen can notably reduce energy consumption.  Explore solar thermal heating and set the water temperature to a max of 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Because heating, cooling, and ventilation accounts for about 30% of overall energy consumption in commercial buildings, it is wise to consider upgrading aged HVAC systems to newer Energy Star HVAC systems.  Furthermore, setting the temperature to 69 degrees in the winter and 78 degrees in the summer can make a noticeable difference.

As new infrastructure is developed, energy efficient design techniques will be implemented to reduce the amount of energy used in heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, etc.

Passive solar design maximizes use of the sun’s light with features like south facing windows and strategic shading to illuminate rooms during the day without too much heat, reducing the need for artificial light and HVAC systems.  Many buildings were not originally designed to make use of passive solar technology, which can pose a series of obstacles while retrofitting a building.  Constructing net-zero buildings from scratch has its advantages in this area.

Whether retrofitting or constructing buildings with net-zero in mind, it is imperative that building contractors, property owners, and CEOs collaborate in the design process to maximize the success of the project.  The goal is to achieve net-zero status with the most cost effective strategy, which will require a financial forecasting, analyzing and planning for anticipated energy consumption, and attention to every detail of the project.

In addition to boosting a building’s energy efficiencyand spending time devising a plan, the conduct of a building’s occupants is a sizeable factor in achieving net-zero status.  The occupants of a building must change their behavior to conserve energy.  The entire staff  in a building needs to become accustomed to turning off lights and office appliances.  Anyone using a computer should make use of “sleep” settings.  If you are a business owner or a property manager, you ought to consider implementing some sort of incentive for energy conservation.

The bottom line is that becoming net-zero right now is exceptionally difficult if all parties are not on board with the effort.  Only as energy efficiency is brought into the forefront of everyone’s consciousness can net-zero truly become a workable option.

Offsetting Consumption with On-Site Renewable Energy

Whether retrofitting existing infrastructure or building from the ground up, renewable energy systems can be used to help achieve a net-zero standing.

The Department of Energy, which is currently funding ZEB research, predicts that reduced costs for solar will double this year’s sales for photovoltaics in the United States.

One considerable factor in the race towards net-zero is the advancement of solar technology, which we have had the privilege of witnessing firsthand.  As solar technology progresses, the rated output of manufactured solar panels continues to clime.  Just several years ago, 190 Watt solar panels were pretty standard.  Today, most customers are purchasing 240 Watt Modules.  We can expect to see the output of solar modules continue to increase over the years.  Though net-zero sounds intimidating at this point in time, in a couple decades it might sound more realistic.

There are many who feel that net-zero building is just too ambitious in some circumstances:

“Some buildings will never achieve net zero energy usage– it’s just not possible to reduce their energy use enough so that renewable energy sources can make up the balance,” says Dru B. Crawley, former Commercial Buildings Team Lead for the Department of Energy.

Whether or not the goals of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 are too ambitious, they have set efforts in motion to create more sustainable means of living and working.  As of now, net-zero buildings are few and far between, but we will be eagerly watching to see what happens over time.

Perhaps it’s too early to say, but do you think these net-zero standards are reasonable aspirations or are they simply too far-fetched?  If they are currently unrealistic, what areas are holding us back?  For example, if we see improvement in battery technology, how might this change our predictions?


Author: Tom Jackson

I believe clean, renewable energy is key to the evolution of society as a whole. Solar powers our planet, why not harness it to power humanity? Let's power our homes, our work, and our vehicles with solar energy. It begins with raising awareness and encouraging those around us to go green.

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