Rhode Island Shows Economic and Climate Leadership by Embracing Zero Energy Buildings

One of the most significant outcomes of COP21 in 2015 was the need to ensure that global temperature rise remains below 2 degrees Celsius by cutting global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A recent report from the World Green Building Council (World GBC) calls this “the most important race in our existence” and calls for all buildings to operate at net zero carbon — for all new buildings by 2030 and 100% of buildings by 2050 — as a way to combat climate change. As our federal government risks furthering our slide towards climate catastrophe by stepping away from the COP21 agreement, the Ocean State (Rhode Island) has committed to enhancing its economy by investing in a more efficient and resilient buildings stock and creating jobs while positioning itself as a climate champion by adopting a series of energy policies to reduce GHG emissions. These policy goals include:

• An executive order that calls for an 80% reduction in GHG emission by 2050
• A state energy plan that establishes a target to reduce GHG emissions by 45% below 1990 levels by 2035

This climate commitment can be viewed as just the next step in a series of energy policies that reflect a unique response to a different sort of vulnerability that is somewhat unique to the Ocean State. Because there are very few energy sources located within the state, it is almost entirely dependent on imported fossil fuels for supplying in-state electric generation, thermal energy and transportation fuels. As stated in their energy plan, “the State’s most significant “supply” resource is actually on the demand side – energy savings achieved through investments in energy efficiency”. This is reflected by the #4 scorecard ranking the state received from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) for their energy efficiency policy and program efforts.

Within this context, Rhode Island’s sole utility, National Grid, convened a task force in late 2015 with the intent of determining how zero energy buildings might contribute to helping the state meet its GHG reduction goals, ultimately resulting in a series of recommendations that appeared in a white paper that was given to Governor Raimondo in late 2016. NBI staff served as technical advisers on the task force and white paper. The task force consisted of a diverse group of building stakeholders that met monthly throughout 2016 and formulated a 20-year pathway toward zero energy residential, commercial and public buildings by establishing three over-arching recommendations:

  1. Establish zero energy buildings (ZEBs) as a state priority to align with GHG emissions goals of the state energy plan by 2035
  2. Launch a state-wide ZEB program (Zero Energy RI) across all building sectors
  3. Enhance utility energy efficiency programs and address integration between energy efficiency and renewable energy

The white paper and resulting recommendations provide a clear pathway to not only meeting the state’s GHG reduction goals by reducing carbon emissions from the built environment but also offers another step to protecting the state’s natural resources and improving its economic outlook by doubling down on efficiency and therefore overall energy use, and turning to renewable energy sources to increase in-state energy production. While difficult to put a finite value on, this economic benefit cannot be overstated. By committing to a zero energy building pathway, Rhode Island can send a clear message to the market and further distinguish itself as a national leader when it comes to green building practices and policies all while retaining financial resources that might otherwise be sent elsewhere.

This is the first of two posts on the Rhode Island and ZEB’s. The next post will explore efforts currently underway and what additional activities might be required to move some of the more detailed recommendations forward.

Mark Lyles, Project Manager