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Net-Zero News is Good News: Going Big, Walking the Walk, and Crunching the Costs

May 19, 2014

Who is this for: Building industry stakeholders interested in the emerging landscape of zero energy buildings in the United States and abroad.

Author: Jonathan Rowe, Zero Energy Buildings Program Manager, Autodesk Sustainability Solutions

Article: Earlier this year, the New Buildings Institute released a report that provides a snapshot into the evolving landscape of net-zero energy buildings in the United States. While the number of verified projects (those that have proven success through utility bills) is still low, over a hundred emerging projects have NZE in their sights. But targeting net-zero and achieving it are two different things, it turns out.

It’s not uncommon for a team to find out once a project is built that assumptions were way off for things like behavioral patterns, quality of construction, and the kinds or amount of equipment being plugged in to the walls. Even with the best predictive modeling tools available, net zero frequently requires tweaks during occupancy to make sure things are on track.

The compelling thing these projects demonstrate is that NZE, for the most part, is achievable without a lot of fancy bells and whistles. Off-the-shelf technology usually gets the job done fine. The innovative aspect has more to do with how teams of experts collaborate synergistically across disciplines to create buildings that are hyper-efficient, but delivered to owners at costs that don’t completely break the bank.


Number of NZE Projects from 2012 to 2014

Image Credit: New Buildings Institute

Going Big

Last summer I wrote about how the education sector was leading the way with net-zero energy buildings. They account for roughly a third of the projects listed in NBI’s 2014 market scan, and a few university projects are muscling to outdo each other size-wise. Not to be left out, some in the private sector are getting in on the one-upmanship too.

Last month LPL Financial boasted its new 13-story, 415,000-square-foot headquarters as the nation's largest net-zero energy building. But depending on how you define net-zero energy, this project can be a bit controversial. That’s because in terms of energy demand per square foot, LPL is only marginally better than its peers (whereas most NZEBs implement deep energy saving strategies as a first step before focusing on renewables). And while most NZEBs use solar photovoltaic panels to offset energy consumption, the LPL project relies on three fuel cells that convert natural gas into electricity. The natural gas is offset through purchases of biogas from landfills and wastewater treatment plants. It’s a creative approach to carbon neutrality, but not one that fully jives with the building industry’s common definitions for net-zero energy.


LPL Financial Headquarters

Image Credit: Sustainable Cities Collective

Walking the Walk

One thing is for sure: net-zero energy buildings make a statement. And some organizations use them to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and their competitiveness in a market where owners are coming to expect high performance buildings outright.

In Jakarta, a state-owned energy company hired architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design the world’s first net-zero energy skyscraper. Slated for completion in 2020, the Pertamina Energy Tower is meant to be a symbol of Indonesia's commitment to sustainable development. And at 99 stories high, it dwarfs the LPL Tower. It’s not the first time SOM went down this path. Despite best intentions, the Pearl River Tower project never fully realized its ambitions to achieve net-zero energy. Talk about getting a second chance.


The Pertamina Energy Tower

Image Credit: Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill

On a smaller scale—and a bit closer to home—DPR Construction announced their new San Francisco office will be net-zero energy certified by the Living Future Institute. This isn’t new territory for DPR. Over the past few years their San Diego and Phoenix offices made headlines for achieving similar feats. Seeing the tides shift towards a future where NZE becomes the norm, DPR are playing it smart by steadily building a portfolio of their own NZE projects, which serve as both learning opportunities and competitive marketing collateral to help win jobs.

Time will tell whether DPR’s strategy pays off in spades, but the story they’re building is compelling. And their commercial projects are getting recognition to boot. The Packard Foundation Headquarters—a NZE project situated in Los Altos, California—was just awarded top honors by the American Institute of Architect’s Committee on the Environment.

Crunching the Costs

When talking about scaling up net-zero energy buildings, the conversation inevitably turns to cost. What’s the premium an owner pays for a zero energy building compared to a conventional or LEED certified building? And is that a good investment, or a bad call? A new report commissioned by Washington, D.C.’s Department of the Environment focuses on those questions exactly.


Cost Premium Ranges for Energy Efficiency and Net-Zero Energy Strategies

Source: The New Buildings Institute

The markup in first cost was found to be between 1-12% for energy conservation measures, with premiums as high as 20% for renovation projects. Owners with sufficient appetite for tax credits had the highest return on their energy efficiency investment dollars, 30% when taking full benefit of the federal solar Investment Tax Credit and D.C.’s Solar Renewable Energy Credit.

NBI’s analysis also found that, when considered in isolation, large building types common in D.C.’s city center are unlikely to achieve net-zero energy. Climactic considerations, solar availability, and roof area are distinct limitations to achieving NZE in dense urban areas. Technology advancements (i.e. PV panels with higher energy output) and scale jumping (think zero energy districts instead of just one-off buildings) are needed to move past these constraints.


Photovoltaic Area to Offset Energy Use

Source: The New Buildings Institute

Staying in the Know

The pace of industry progress delivering NZEBs seems to be picking up, but there’s still much to learn. Consider tuning in to an ongoing series of monthly webinars tackling various topics in this space. The next session, scheduled for May 28, will explore the new paradigm needed for creating ultra-efficient buildings at scale.


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