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The Next Step in Zero Net Energy

Rebecca Foster -

Hint: It's not the buildings

Zero net energy has been a focus of energy efficiency efforts in commercial—and to a lesser extent residential—buildings for several years. Sometimes referred to as “net zero energy” a zero net energy building produces as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year. The movement was articulated and catalyzed through the Architecture 2030 Challenge, which in May 2007 established a goal of having all new buildings meet zero net energy criteria by 2030.

Significant progress has been made since then. In 2012, a New Buildings Institute report identified 99 commercial buildings that were either zero net energy or zero net energy capable. These buildings had been constructed in most climate zones of the US using readily available technologies at incremental costs ranging from 0-18% compared to standard efficiency buildings.

What’s next for zero net energy

With the zero net energy movement gaining momentum, it is time to broaden our perspectives. For too long, the focus of zero net energy work has been on the building itself. In other words, the main question considered has been a technical one: “How can we design a zero net energy building?” Two other critical components have been largely ignored: 1) the people using the building and 2) the community in which the building exists.

Building occupants are integral to zero net energy success

Buildings are places for people to work, live, and play. Early efforts on zero net energy buildings, however, neglected to give the building users the attention they deserve. With the advent of wide-scale energy monitoring studies, the implications of this approach are coming to light. For example, VEIC recently led a research and development project in New Jersey that found significant differences in some cases between modeled and actual energy use, largely due to occupant behavior. Lack of awareness of high-efficiency building features and lack of knowledge about how to operate them were identified as root causes.

Choosing the right location for the zero net energy building is crucial

On average, we use more energy getting to and from a building than the building does in its daily operations. Peer-reviewed research published by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that even green homes in conventional suburban locations use more energy and emit more carbon that non-green homes in transit-served city neighborhoods. The takeaway is that even the greenest development in the wrong location will create more environmental problems than it will solve.

It’s time to broaden our focus on zero net energy and address the whole picture: the person, the building, and the community.

Read the VEIC report on New Jersey High-Performance Homes

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