Net Zero Energy and the 2030 Challenge

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NREL 25 Year Master Plan

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory

It is a commonly quoted statistic in the building industry that roughly half of all energy and as much as 3/4 of all electricity in the United States is used in the operations and maintenance of buildings. Whether it’s natural gas fired boilers or electric air conditioning or artificial lighting, our buildings are the major player in anthropogenic climate change. A major element in the path to reducing – or even reversing – global warming is teaching energy hog buildings how to do without.

Ed Mazria, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, urges the architects, engineers, and other construction professionals in the United States and elsewhere to pledge to do their part in reducing atmospheric carbon by making our buildings more efficient; ideally self sufficient. Dozens of governmental and professional organizations in the US and elsewhere, including the USGBC, AIA, RAIC ASHRAE, Congress for the New Urbanism, EPA, and US Conference of Mayors, have pledged to meet Mazria’s 2030 Challenge of making all new construction and major renovations Net Zero Energy and Carbon Neutral by the year 2030.

According to Mazria in a lecture he recently gave at the Denver Art Museum, buildings have been self sufficient historically for thousands of years, and only with the advent of the industrial revolution and the widespread adoption of the International Style in architecture did our buildings really begin to take a turn for the worse. Before the ability to button up a building and pump it full of artificial light, air, and heat cheaply and easily generated through the burning of fossil fuels, buildings had to rely upon the environment in which they were built to light, ventilate, and condition them naturally and passively.

The design solutions that allow buildings to utilize sun, wind, and light to their own advantage have only recently been lost to the industrial machine. Despite the fact that these practices have fallen, well, out of practice, they are overall easy to understand and somewhat instinctual. Basic strategies that design professionals can implement to help their buildings meet Mazria’s Net Zero Challenge, include:

Manassas Park Elementary School

Manassas Park Elementary School by VMDO Architects

- Tall narrow spaces with high windows or skylights to fill the building with natural light, thus reducing the electricity load for artificial light, as well as the cooling load to counteract all the waste heat generated by those lights.

- Proper orientation and solar exposure with adequate shading devices, allowing sun into the building at times of the year and day when you want it (mornings and winter) and blocking it out when you don’t (evenings and summer).

- Solar massing techniques to allow the building to absorb the heat from the sun during the day and then reradiate it at night, further lowering the need for fossil fuel heating.

- Atrium and courtyard spaces to create microclimates within the building and its surrounding from which the building can draw air in order to pre- or fully condition its spaces on its own.

Kiowa County School

Kiowa County School by BNIM Architects

And that’s just a small sampling of simple, passive techniques that architects and engineers can use to reduce the bearing that buildings have on our energy infrastructure. There are also a number of off-the-shelf and high tech solutions that can be implemented in concert with a building automated system to further increase the efficiency of the design. Slapping some renewable energy solutions on as well can’t hurt too much either.

What’s more, Mazria explained in his lecture, an improvement in the quality of buildings can be good for not just the environment, but also for the people who inhabit them and for the economy. After analyzing market data from the past few years, the Architecture 2030 team concluded that 25% of new home construction in the US had been the result of federal tax incentives, like the First Time Homebuyer Credit. He is currently proposing to the State of Colorado a tax incentive program for new homes that would reward homebuyers and builders for Net Zero Construction. He estimates that such a program could infuse more than 1 billion dollars into the local economy, create as many as 19,000 jobs, and generate about double the tax dollars necessary to pay out to homebuyers.

Overall the benefits to Net Zero Energy building are varied and undeniable. By constructing buildings that don’t rely upon the crutch of fossil fuels to heat, cool, light, and ventilate them, we can move one step closer to energy independence, healthier work and living environments, and a stabilized climate.