Can zero-energy buildings become the norm?

Oberlin College
The Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College is a zero-energy building.

The energy landscape in the U.S. has been shifting towards cleaner energy sources, which is indicative of societal mindfulness of the need for sustainable development that ensures maintenance of a healthy environment for generations to come.

Despite this shift, we face domestic and international energy challenges that must be addressed in order to successfully mitigate climate change impacts as well as to ensure economic and national security.

The industry has responded with innovative solutions intended to equip the public and private sectors with the tools necessary to decrease energy consumption and increase the resiliency of communities by incorporating the use of energy efficient technology and strategies. As it turns out, buildings are a great place to start. 

 

With buildings accounting for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s energy consumption, they serve as a substantial part of our energy challenge, as well as a potential solution — and a key sector on the path to a zero-energy society.

The basics – a zero-energy building

First, what exactly is zero energy? As defined by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), a zero-energy building is an energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the onsite renewable exported energy.

According to the 2016 Energy Efficiency Indicator (EEI) Survey published by Johnson Controls, 85 percent of respondents across regions surveyed indicated that their organizations are paying considerably more attention to energy efficiency with 72 percent planning to increase investments in this capacity and in renewable energy.

Often what project teams fail to realize when incorporating energy efficient technology and strategies into building schematics is that they are already on the cusp of developing a zero-energy building.

A building stock capable of generating enough power with renewable energy coupled with energy-efficient technology to avoid as much energy waste as possible represents an opportunity to create a resilient society. It would be able to reallocate money from energy savings to other necessary infrastructure improvements.

Building smarter

Opportunities to decrease reliance on unsustainable resources and strategies are plentiful with a variety of industry stakeholders stepping in with innovative solutions in the marketplace. 

Seventhwave is one such innovator facilitating the infusion of energy requirements within design-build contracts, also known as "performance based procurement," to support building owners who are interested in reducing energy costs, but are wary of the substantial upfront investment.

Performance-based procurement (PDF) allows owners to solicit bids from project teams that align with their energy goals, working to achieve a pre-established EUI, along with additional sustainability goals. The Seventhwave team provides technical guidance and assists owners with the establishment of energy targets before start of construction.

This distinct RFP process then requires project teams to develop unique methods to reduce energy consumption through a tiered-goal system — prioritizing the owner’s mission critical goals, followed by financial objectives and rounded out by an overall, highly beneficial target. 

Multifaceted problems require multifaceted solutions

Project teams typically work towards energy efficiency goals with several dimensions — rarely is a solution engineered that focuses on one particular technology or strategy. As such, it’s important for project teams to have access to the right resources that allow them to determine the course of action likely to result in an optimally performing building.

Resources can be in the form of peer networks, such as the 2030 Districts initiative, which focuses on supporting major metropolitan areas in their sustainability endeavors through partnerships between public and private entities, or they can take the form of tools developed specifically for project teams in the buildings sector.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association, in partnership with the Institute for Market Transformation and Ecology Action, recently launched such resources in the External Financing Guide and the SMART Scale platform, respectively.

The SMART Scale platform, developed through funding provided by the DOE, is intended for use by administrators of small- and medium-business energy efficiency programs and is designed to help them achieve an average of 20 percent energy savings per building by offering a set of measures, integrated financing tools and expedited project measurement and verification (M&V). The platform aims to propagate expertise of the already sophisticated commercial energy services market ensuring that its professionals are super-efficient, smart grid-ready and zero energy-capable.

These tools all help with achieving zero energy — the unstipulated, although increasingly accepted, ultimate goal of sustainable building. Zero energy is a target which many energy service organizations in the industry are working to prepare their professionals for. Project teams are mindful of it throughout the design and construction process, taking time to incorporate components and building strategies that result in a building with hardware and engineering in place to readily accept renewable energy installations.

The future

Zero energy building may be seen as a daunting challenge. However, a closer look reveals that many projects working to improve building performance and reduce energy related costs, as well as adverse impacts on the environment, are already a good portion of the way there.

The application of advanced controls strategies to mitigate energy use and costs based on Energy Management and Information Systems (EMIS) data, use of emerging technologies, well-developed finance plans and taking an integrated and continued whole building approach to projects will revolutionize building portfolios.

The end result? A building stock capable of generating enough power to operate based on renewable energy, as well as feed operational savings back into its revenue streams to make additional infrastructural improvements, all while feeding surplus power back onto the power grid.

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