How to create a net-zero office

How to create a net-zero office

For homebuilders, the latest iteration of the green building movement are net-zero homes. These structures generate as much energy as they consume and have very small carbon footprints. Improvements in technology have now made net-zero homes a viable option for many homeowners.

But the success of net zero homes begs the question: Can you create a net-zero office?

The answer is a resounding "Yes!" Of course, many offices do present more challenges than a typical home, but there are clearly ways to improve their sustainability even if net-zero status cannot be fully achieved.

There are two parts to the net-zero equation:

1.   Energy Consumption: The first order of business is to reduce the energy that your facility uses. The obvious candidates for energy savings also apply to homes: efficient lighting, insulation, programmable thermostats and Low-E windows.

For offices, there are some additional opportunities for energy savings:

  • Power down computer equipment at night.
  • If you have multiple computer servers, combine them into one box using new virtualization technologies.
  • Move your data storage and applications to the cloud. This can potentially eliminate computer servers from your facility altogether. Not only does this reduce the energy consumption of the box, but the energy required to keep it cool as well. It is true that some of this energy requirement is simply moved to a third party service provider, but most large data centers are much more energy efficient than a small local IT facility.
  • Almost every office has rules addressing energy use of items such as personal heaters, refrigerators -- even changing the thermostat. It would be worthwhile to re-visit your particular rules with an eye towards energy efficiency.
  • Install skylights or solar tubes to reduce the use of electronic light fixtures during the day.
  • Ensure that large copy machines and printers are energy efficient and switch to sleep mode when not in use.
  • Because they are used so frequently in the office, make sure that you have motion sensing switches or timers on the lights in your bathrooms.
  • If your exterior doors are opened frequently during the business day, review your options for mitigating the heat and cooling loss. Two sets of doors or air curtains are sometimes used to address this problem.

Photo of keyboard with green button provided by Lasse Kristensen via Shutterstock

 2.   Energy Generation: Now that you have minimized your energy consumption, you know how much energy you need to generate in order to achieve the net-zero goal.

Here is where some businesses have big challenges. Many proprietors do not own their buildings. Some offices are not in stand-alone buildings and many may not have land or roof space available. You may be able to work with your landlord to get around some of these limitations.

After assessing your particular situation, consider the following alternatives for generating energy:

  • Solar is the obvious choice for homes and offices alike. Solar panels can be used to generate electricity and solar water systems can generate hot water and even heat the facility. The big challenge for an office is to find enough room to install the solar panels.
  • Wind Power: Here is where an office may have an advantage over a home. Building height, noise problems and aesthetics can all be an impediment to installing wind systems on a home. A commercial area, on the other hand, may be more conducive to installation of this equipment.
  • Geothermal Energy: These systems pump fluids into the ground to take advantage of moderate temperatures below the surface. The fluids that come back up can then be used to both heat and cool the building.

Many net-zero homes utilize both solar and geothermal energy to achieve an energy balance. Unless you have very large areas available for solar panels, it's likely you will need more than one energy source for the office as well.

If you can't achieve net-zero status at your office facility on your own, don't despair. Do what you can and buy the balance of your energy from a renewable source. Many utilities now offer opportunities to do this. You can also purchase carbon offsets to complete the package.

When it comes to office sustainability, continuous improvement is key. Wherever you are in the process of moving towards net zero, don't hesitate to take one more step forward today.