A new “net zero energy building” opened in Singapore recently, signaling a step in the right direction for the World Green Building Council’s mission of all buildings operating at net zero carbon by 2050.
Net zero carbon buildings, as defined by the World Green Building Council, are “buildings that are highly energy efficient and fully powered from on-site and/or off-site renewable energy sources.” Thus, for these buildings, the energy consumption is offset by renewable energy produced. Many countries and cities have expressly set goals for net zero buildings in an effort to meet the highest standards set by the Paris Agreement.
The trend toward net zero buildings appears to be picking up steam in the United States as well as around the world. Among the many goals set around the world, the United States has set a goal for all new federal buildings to be net zero energy by 2030, although the classification of net zero includes four types of net zero buildings. For example, the “net zero site energy” classification, which is perhaps the most rigorous standard, requires a building to capture as much energy within the footprint of the project site as it uses onsite over the course of a year. A mainstream engineering industry publication recently declared that, “The global Net Zero Energy movement for commercial buildings quietly appears to have achieved critical mass.” This conclusion was based on, among other factors, findings from Johnson Control’s 2018 Energy Efficiency Indicator (EEI) survey, which polled nearly 2,000 facility and energy management executives from 20 countries. The annual EEI report highlighted a significant year-over-year increase in net zero energy goals, with 61% of U.S.-based organizations expressing that they are “extremely or very likely to have one or more facilities that are nearly zero, net zero or positive energy/carbon in the next 10 years,” marking a 14% increase from the prior year.
Last fall, net zero buildings in the U.S. took a big leap forward with the opening of biotech company United Therapeutics’ “Unisphere” in Silver Springs, Maryland. The 135,000 square foot Unisphere structure is touted as the largest net zero commercial building in the U.S. It features over 3,000 photovoltaic panels, geo-exchange wells, an earth-coupled heating/cooling system, a high-performance curtainwall with electrochromic glass, an automated natural ventilation system, daylight harvesting, a thermal pool, green roof terraces that reduce rainwater run-off, and electric car charging stations.
While most domestic projects are not of the scale of Unisphere, the aggregate number of net zero buildings in the U.S. has significantly increased over the last decade. The New Building Institute, which publishes a biannual Zero Energy Buildings List, identified 60 net zero buildings in 2012. In 2018, there were 482 buildings on the list, a staggering increase of approximately 700%.
Innovation Fuels the Net Zero Movement
In a world where reducing dependence on fossil fuel is key, net zero buildings are leading the way in innovating and finding solutions for building materials, appliances, and construction. Efficient solar panels are important for meeting the target goals, and are constantly being innovated (e.g., flexible film solar panels); however, reducing energy consumption to meet net zero building targets requires increases in energy efficiency across all aspects of the building.
For example, building materials, such as window coatings, concrete mixtures, and insulation, are being modernized to improve temperature stability indoors. Furthermore, as HVAC systems are one of the largest energy consumers in a building, energy efficient appliances and equipment (e.g., heat pumps, water heaters, and furnaces) are being redeveloped and improved to reduce their carbon footprint. Additionally, LED lighting and movement sensors are helping reduce total electricity usage. Buildings are also incorporating systems to optimize energy collection during low usage times. Wind, solar, or hydro systems, or a combination of all three, are also being integrated into the buildings for onsite renewable energy generation.
As the demand for net zero energy building increases, there is a corresponding increase in the need for researchers and organizations to develop technology related to the net zero infrastructure. This shift from traditional building plans to net zero plans requires technological advances that provide cost-effective and energy-efficient solutions.
In addition, innovative policy-making will be critical in driving the net zero movement forward. While net zero building costs are likely to decline over time with advancements in technology, construction, engineering, and manufacturing processes, taxes and other incentives offered at the state and federal levels, coupled with the energy consumption related savings, are beginning to make net zero buildings an attractive option today.
As the world drives toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, industries will be building, renovating, or upgrading their facilities and equipment to meet newly established standards and goals. Government regulations, building codes, and incentives will help push the net zero infrastructure; however, the development of advanced building materials to meet these goals is vital to this movement. With the 2030 benchmark fast approaching, the worldwide race to develop technological advances in this space is already underway.
Click below to view the infographic illustrating statistics on global net zero energy building as a downloadable PDF.