Zero Net Energy Initiatives Taking Root

by | Aug 10, 2016


The status of NZE projects and regulations as of 2015. Image: New Buildings Institute

It’s no surprise that California is the leading state in creating buildings that generate as much or more energy than they use.

There are two reasons that zero net (ZNE) is big in The Golden State: It’s population (and, thus, the people elected to office) think environmental activism is a good thing and its generally temperate climate makes achieving this goal a bit easier.

Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Energy Commission and the New Buildings Institute (CPUC, CEC and NBI) said that 17 new and renovated commercial buildings in the state have been certified as net zero and 91 are working toward that status. The 109 structures are on the Watchlist of NZE buildings that was developed by NBI (with funding from the CPUC).

More news is on the way because regulations are moving in the NZE direction. The press release says that laws are in place mandating new residential construction be ZNE by 2020 and new commercial construction by 2030. It must be proven that structures are ZNE before they are advertised as such, however. “That means we need a year’s worth of both energy use data and renewable energy production data to verify,” wrote NBI Communications Director Stacey Hobart in response to emailed questions from Energy Manager Today. “So from 2015 to 2016, you saw marginal growth in verified 15 projects in 2015 to 17 projects in 2016. However, you saw nearly an 80% increasing in buildings in the emerging category—from 51 to 81 buildings. This indicates a growing (however nascent) trend toward ZNE.”

Hobart suggests that ZNE is gradually enmeshing itself in energy codes in states such as California and New York. Others, she writes, will follow as new code gradually become more stringent and demand compliance.

There is ZNE activity outside of California. For instance, construction has started on a 470 square-foot restroom in a park in Spring, TX. Though small, the structure is said by The Houston Chronicle to be the first ZNE building in Harris County. It will sustain itself via solar panels, a rain harvesting system and on-site wastewater treatment system. The story points out that there are many restrooms in public parks. Thus, despite the fact that each isn’t impressive alone, creating a ZNE template will have significant cumulative impact.

Using the concept beyond a single structure is conceptually the same but can be different in practice. If, for instance, three buildings are working in coordination, one might not achieve ZNE status on its own – but if the other two do so by an amount greater than the overage on the outlier, the system qualifies.

Last month, Seacoastonline reported that a Portsmouth, NH developer wants to create a small net zero community. The goal of Lorax Sustainable Development LLC is to build five solar-powered homes on a 2.6-acre lot. The project aims to generate enough energy to take them homes off the grid for heating, cooling and electricity. This would give them ZNE status.

NZE often is grouped with water resources. Late last month, the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) released a study — conducted in association with Black & Veatch — that suggests that water resource recovery facilities are prime candidates to be upgraded to ZNE status. The study provides ideas on how plants can be powered by water and wastes that they treat, according to the press release.

Hobart wrote that the obstacles include a high learning curve for designers, the perception (though not always the reality) that first-costs are higher than for traditional construction and the general resistance to change. Progress is being made, she wrote. “Generally, states with the largest number of buildings also have ZNE-related policies. There are exceptions like Vermont, but in those cases relative number of buildings is a factor. In other words, there are less buildings in Vermont so the numbers are going to be smaller.”

NZE is a big concept that requires fundamental changes in how things are done and how people think. Real progress – in homes, waste water plants and even park rest rooms – is being made. It will accelerate as mandates spread nationwide.

Stay Informed

Get E+E Leader Articles delivered via Newsletter right to your inbox!

Share This