Is Net Zero Energy Really Within Reach?

By Scott Kriner, Green Metal Consulting 

Do you remember the Architecture 2030 initiative that challenged the building industry to build or retrofit all buildings to net zero energy standards or net zero Carbon by the year 2030? This was led by architect Edward Mazria in 2002. When it was first suggested 2030 seemed a long way off. Since then, more organizations jumped on the bandwagon since it seemed to be the right thing to do. This was supported by AIA and by individual states and even some territories.

Everything seemed to be on track and there appeared to be enough time to alter how buildings would be constructed for residential and commercial types of buildings. In addition, over 29 states and Washington DC have established Renewable Portfolio Standards. Those standards are regulations that  require the increased production of energy from renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal. Adding renewable energy, such as photovoltaics, to roofs of these buildings was the easy way to approach the net zero energy, right? Well, maybe not so easy.

Interestingly there was much hoopla around integrating renewable energy, but very little discussion of first lowering the energy burden of a building before even considering installing renewable energy.

That can be done by increasing the building’s insulation, using tinted windows, awnings, or operable windows, reducing plug loads, installing efficient lighting fixtures, and other methods.

Many in the LEED community want this to be a criterion for LEED Platinum levels and California has announced it as a goal for all residential and commercial buildings by 2020 and 2030, respectively.

The reasoning behind, and exact requirements for, the Architecture Challenge 2030 are as follows:

Buildings are the major source of global demand for energy and materials that produce by-product greenhouse gases (GHG). Therefore, slowing the growth rate of GHG emissions and then reversing it is the key to addressing climate change and keeping global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. To accomplish this, Architecture 2030 issued The 2030 Challenge, asking the global architecture and building community to adopt the following targets:

•  All new buildings, developments and major renovations shall be designed to meet a fossil fuel, GHG-emitting, energy consumption performance standard of 70% below the regional (or country) average/median for that building type.

•  At a minimum, an equal amount of existing building area shall be renovated annually to meet a fossil fuel, GHG-emitting, energy consumption performance standard of 70% of the regional (or country) average/median for that building type.

•  The fossil fuel reduction standard for all new buildings and major renovations shall be increased to:

    ◦  80% in 2020
    ◦  90% in 2025
    ◦  Carbon-neutral in 2030 (using no fossil fuel GHG emitting energy to operate).

These targets may be accomplished by implementing innovative sustainable design strategies, generating on-site renewable power and/or purchasing (20% maximum) renewable energy.

Well, despite that we have 12+ years left to meet the Challenge, another fly in the ointment is the fact that with all changes to new or retrofit buildings, some builders are now expressing doubts that we can meet the Challenge because for most urban buildings greater than 4 stories there is  simply not enough room on those buildings’ roofs  to fit the amount of solar energy  that would be needed .

Will the Challenge be met by 2030? Time will tell. If nothing else it will continue to raise awareness for zero energy construction.

Scott Kriner is the president and founder of Green Metal Consulting Inc. He is a LEED Accredited Professional who began his career in the metal construction industry in 1981. His company is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, the California Association of Building Energy Consultants and the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET).

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