Energy Efficiency and Net-Zero Buildings

Written By: Laurel Kruke, Sustainability Manager

I was at a conference at the beginning of February where companies, utilities, non-profits, governmental organizations, and others came together to talk about energy efficiency solutions in the Midwest. One of the workshops I attended was called EE First: The Right Way to Get to Net-Zero Energy. I’m interested in topics like this because net-zero energy buildings, ENERGY STAR, and LEED are great certification guidelines to follow when constructing a building, but I think we need to go one step further and think about what happens when people move into that building. Will the building live up to the net-zero/ENERGY STAR/LEED promises? Will it perform the way it’s designed and built? I believe the key is making sure the occupants who move into that building know how to use new systems and technology and take steps to be more mindful of their consumption (e.g., energy, water, waste, food, etc.).

The Department of Energy defines a Net-Zero Energy Building as one that “produces enough renewable energy to meet its own annual energy consumption requirements, thereby reducing the use of non-renewable energy in the building sector.” This definition, and through it net-zero energy buildings in general, rely heavily on technology to meet the energy requirements. This might be through solar or wind installations, or using hydro power, for electricity needs. Ultimately, it’s about reducing or eliminating the need for non-renewables, like coal, to power our buildings. What’s exciting about net-zero energy building initiatives is that these buildings can contribute to lowering the carbon footprint of cities, and help meet climate action plans and efforts leading to agreements based on the Paris Climate Agreement.

A big consideration before installing renewable energy systems on a building to help meet energy needs is to ensure that the building itself, its operational procedures, and occupant usage are as efficient as possible. By making sure energy usage is as low as possible, the amount of renewable power installed could be reduced but still achieve the desired outcome of net-zero energy. This could equate to savings because an organization wouldn’t have to pay for extra solar panels or wind turbines that aren’t necessary. The Department of Energy put together this information guide and diagram to describe basic steps to designing a net-zero energy building.

Another excellent benefit of net-zero energy buildings is that they can be used as living laboratories to teach occupants about systems and concepts using the spaces themselves. This can be especially effective in schools, where students can learn about new renewable energy technologies on their campuses by actually looking at solar panels or wind turbines, or see how passive heating/cooling and natural daylighting can contribute to a more energy efficient (and healthier) learning environment. Engaging students with their physical space provides hands-on learning opportunities and can pique the interest of students who might otherwise not understand just by reading a textbook.