6 Facts About Net-Zero Buildings

 

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The House on the Bay is a solar-powered net-zero home designed by Italian architect Andrea Ponsi / Inhabitat

 

In the US, buildings account for a whopping 70% of our electricity consumption and roughly 40% of carbon emissions – that’s more than either the transportation or industry sectors! Of course, buildings don’t have tailpipes like cars do, so this fact might not be obvious, but the electricity it takes to heat, cool and light buildings usually comes from a coal or gas-fired power plant.

Clearly, we need a revolution in the way we build and renovate our homes and offices. EarthShare members like Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and the Alliance to Save Energy are leading this revolution by demonstrating the success of ambitious models like net-zero (or “zero energy”), which demand that buildings use less energy than they produce. To put it another way, the building should have an electricity utility bill of $0 over the course of a year. 

 

Here are six facts about net-zero buildings:

Net-zero buildings save owners and tenants money. Virginia’s first net-zero building, an elementary school that opened in September 2015, is expected to save Arlington County money on utility bills because it generates its electricity onsite through solar and geothermal systems and wastes very little energy.

There are currently only about 400 net-zero buildings globally. And 25% of those are located in North America. But net-zero may take off if the popular LEED ranking system adopts net-zero for its platinum certification, as US Green Building Council insiders have predicted it will.

Ambitious standards like net-zero are needed to fight climate change. According to RMI, “The incremental approach to making homes and buildings "less bad' or 30% better than code is not going to work. We need aggressive, actionable solutions now.” Net-zero is one such aggressive approach.

Older buildings can go net-zero too. The Netherlands is planning to convert over 100,000 low-income homes to net-zero by 2020 at no cost to tenants. These homes, built in the 1950s through the 1970s, will benefit from new solar roofs, upgraded electric systems, and better insulation.

Net-zero doesn’t have to end at the building. Buildings don’t exist in isolation. Why not apply the principals of net-zero energy to neighborhoods and cities too? The nation’s largest community designed to reach net-zero energy is West Village, a mixed-use campus neighborhood at the University of California, Davis. It’s designed to ultimately house 3,000 students along with 500 staff and faculty. After a year, the residences have already achieved 87% electrical self-sufficiency.

Net-zero is just one way to measure green buildings. Energy Star, LEED, the Living Building Challenge, and Passivhaus, among others, offer different ways to address energy use in buildings. Most of the ranking systems are complementary (albeit varying in ambition) and offer other vital measures like water use and indoor air quality.

 

Want to learn more? Visit our member organizations for resources:

The Building Sector, Environmental & Energy Study Institute

2025 Buildings Goal, Rocky Mountain Institute

Buildings Overview, Alliance to Save Energy

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