Net-Zero Buildings Are the Next Frontier

July 31, 2012

To kick off our new blog, The Current, IMT asked journalists, architects and engineers, lighting specialists, and other experts to weigh in on the question: What’s the next frontier in energy efficiency? In this guest post, Katie Weeks discusses getting to net zero and beyond. 

 

As the editor of a green-building magazine, I’m often asking myself and our readers what, exactly, is a green building? The reality is: there is no right answer, and that’s what keeps things exciting.

If you try and imagine what the green building of the future look like, you’re going about things the wrong way. The question should no longer be focused on what sustainability will look like going forward—it will continue to come in all shapes and sizes. Rather, the questions we ask about our built environment should increasingly focus on performance and efficiency. This is where huge opportunity lies for technologies and techniques addressing energy efficiency.

One of the most interesting developments of the past few years has been the emergence of net-zero-energy buildings: those structures that produce enough energy on site to meet their own needs. If we want to talk about the future of energy efficiency, this is it.

The New Buildings Institute (NBI) and Zero Energy Commercial Buildings Consortium (CBC) recently reported that the number of zero-energy buidlings (ZEBs) in the commercial realm is on the rise as of 2012. That being said, there’ s still a long way to go. NBI and CBC identified only 99 buildings in the United States that are either zero energy, zero-energy capable, or ZEBs under construction or recently completed with limited performance data.

Nonetheless, it is a hopefully and inspiring target that we should continue to push forward. One example of how this is being fostered is the growth of the Living Building Challenge and its spinoff, the Net Zero Energy Building Certification, which requires net-zero energy and at least 12 months of consecutive operational data to prove it. (Of course, the issue of tracking actual performance data of energy-efficient buildings versus relying on models is a whole separate blog post in itself…)

In fact, the goal should ultimately be to go beyond this to produce buildings that not only support themselves (helpful to the environment, yes, and to communities that may be temporarily islanded after a natural disaster), but also carry the capability to produce more than enough energy to meet site needs.

Doing this on a single-building scale, however, is just the first step. To move forward, we must think increasingly about how this can be accomplished on a larger scale, as in net-zero-energy neighborhoods, districts, and cities.

Transformation on this scale would require serious adjustments: rethinking the way we design and renovate buildings so that the process is more integrated, discussing energy use from day 1 with all stakeholders. We need to educate practitioners and the general public about how we currently use energy and how individual actions affect this, and we need an overhaul of our nation’s energy systems and grids.

What do you think: Is it possible?

Katie Weeks is the editor of Eco-Structure, a national print and online green-building magazine.

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