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New zero-energy districts: A mile high and growing

Colorado takes the cake for upcoming net zero energy districts to watch in 2017 and beyond.

Colorado is a leader in the movement toward net zero energy districts — where a group of buildings together generate as much energy as they consume over the course of a year — for a few reasons. 

The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) is in Golden, Colorado, and local corporations and local governments have tapped into the research lab’s technical resources on renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. Colorado also has taken advantage of brand new federal support for zero energy districts and technical resources at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.


Detailed planning began last year for the redevelopment of the National Western Stockshow Complex, a 130-acre site that hosts Denver’s annual National Western Stockshow. The Stockshow complex eventually will include 250 acres and more than nine buildings and be called the National Western Center. It will operate year-round as an education center focused on agriculture. NREL and CSU are contributing expertise to the master planning for the project with a goal of achieving net zero energy.

Net zero energy districts achieve net zero energy by sharing resources and infrastructure and by taking advantage of efficiency, capturing energy that otherwise might be wasted and by relying on renewables.

"Net zero districts offer an incredible opportunity for cities to greatly reduce their energy use and carbon emissions while at the same time revitalizing urban neighborhoods," Chuck Kutscher, NREL's Center Director for Buildings and Thermal System, said in a statement issued by the city of Denver last year. Kutscher said NREL staff is "very excited to support the NWC district in achieving innovative levels of energy performance and help establish Denver as a national leader in zero energy districts." 

The National Western Center and another Denver project, the Sun Valley EcoDistrict in Denver’s low-income Sun Valley neighborhood, are officially two of six projects participating in the Better Buildings Zero Energy Districts Accelerator. The new program, launched by the Department of Energy and National League of Cities in November, intends to help move the building market to achieve zero energy use in districts.

In exchange for technical support, tools and resources, the participants will document and share their energy master plans for the zero energy districts, create and share a business case and share their plans for operations so that other cities and markets may replicate these models.

The zero energy district trend in Colorado started with the groundbreaking Fort ZED in Fort Collins, a pilot launched in 2007 for what will eventually become one of the largest zero energy districts in the country. Fort ZED includes the CSU campus as well as a downtown business district and a residential district.

Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), an advisor on the Fort ZED project, recently released a briefing paper on the financial side of net zero energy development, An Integrative Business Model for Net Zero Energy Districts (PDF). RMI presents a business model for developing net zero energy or ultra-low energy districts and makes the case that pursuing net zero energy is not a cost, but rather a significant value.

Four other upcoming net zero energy districts that will be launching in other parts of the country — all participants in the Zero Energy District Accelerator program. They are: Advanced Energy Communities in Huntington Beach, California; Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant Redevelopment Project in St. Paul, Minnesota; Fresno Energy Performance District in Fresno, California; and Western New York Manufacturing ZNE District in Buffalo, New York.

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