Zero dark 2018: A current look at California's net-zero building goal of 2020

California flag in brick wall

As the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) implements the California Long-Term Energy Efficiency Strategy Plan, a foundational goal is ensuring all new residential buildings be Zero Net Energy (ZNE) by 2020 and all new commercial buildings be ZNE by 2030. Additionally, 50 percent of existing commercial buildings will need to be retrofitted to ZNE by 2030. Though this is a huge shift, the advances in energy efficiency best practices, solar photovoltaic (PV) and energy storage position the building community for success.

California has long been a leader in sustainability. We can still enforce our own vehicles emissions standards that surpass federal goals, and we passed the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32) before any other state (or federal) legislation was directly targeting climate change. California's Title 24, "Title 24 Code of Regulations," first enacted in 1978, has been updated over a dozen times since then, increasing the energy efficiency and energy reduction requirements that ultimately prepared California for the ambitious path to zero net energy.

Even within California, early adopters and "over-achievers" pave the way to increased improvements. Santa Monica, CA updated their Green Building Code ahead of the impending statewide code change, and as of May 1, 2017, all new low-rise residential buildings shall be designed to use 15 percent less energy than allowed in the 2016 California Energy Code and achieve an Energy Design Rating (EDR) of Zero. The city of Santa Monica believes they are the first city in the world to enact a net zero building code for their municipality. All new high-rise residential, non-residential, hotels and motels shall be designed to surpass the 2016 California Energy Code’s energy requirements by 10 percent (using 10 percent less energy).

Defining net zero

In 2016, the Department of General Services (DGS) issued these definitions of zero net energy:

     –  ZNE building: An energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual consumed energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable generated energy.

     – ZNE campus: An energy-efficient campus where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual consumed energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable generated energy.

     – ZNE portfolio: An energy-efficient portfolio in which, on a source energy basis, the actual annual consumed energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable generated energy.

     – ZNE community: An energy-efficient community where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual consumed energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable generated energy.

Tracking net zero

Even without legal enforcement, ZNE buildings are popping up all over the country. The map and graph below from the New Buildings Institute (NBI), the nation's leading nonprofit group tracking net-zero building data, show the dramatic growth in the US, and the overall project landscape:

From NBI’s “2018 Getting to Zero Status Update.”

As you can see in the map image above "2018 Buildings List Project Locations," California is already leading the way (in project numbers and market growth). These are diverse project types including schools, residential buildings (single and multi-family), hotels, aquariums and more, with the leaders of this movement  just as diverse. From new construction to retrofits, ZNE goals are being advanced by:

  • Cities:
    • Santa Monica's City Services Building will be a groundbreaking innovation, and hopes to be one of the greenest buildings in the world.
  • Private industry:
    • LinkedIn's Sunnyvale Campus generates enough renewable energy onsite to power all of its energy needs
  • Non-profit:
    • The Bullitt Foundation's Bullitt Center in Seattle, WA has a 244 kW rooftop solar array comprised of 575 PV panels, offsetting all annual use (and often feeding additional power back into the grid).
  • Unions:
  • More:
    • Schools, civil infrastructure projects, local government administrative facilities and so many more are looking to onsite renewable energy to offset their use, for a host of reasons beyond the legal mandate still a decade away.

ZNE is a performance metric, ensuring that the energy consumed on site is less than or equal to the renewable energy produced to serve it.

However, to address this kind of shift across building types and occupant needs, multiple pathways can facilitate this offset.

Pursuing net zero

A project should start with increasing the overall efficiency, to reduce the amount of energy needed to offset, and from there, the market is exploring multiple pathways to success.

(Source: Zero Net Energy California) 

It is not a one-size fits all problem, and there is no silver bullet. The upcoming California Code change is a lever; to ensure this performance-based approach has the scaffolding needed to succeed, a number of prescriptive solutions are making their way through the California State House and Senate.

As we see legislation facilitate (or impede) distributed solar, energy storage, etc., we also see a roadmap for other cities and states to implement their own solutions. These successes and challenges will help others leapfrog the incremental changes California has used to bring us to this precipice of a net zero revolution.

To learn more, visit Los Angeles from Sept. 12 to 14 for the world’s largest Net Zero Conference, NZ18. Thought leaders from around the Country will present on case studies and real world examples of net zero projects and help usher in this new era of high performance design.

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