An Insider’s Guide for Our Clean Energy Future

The latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change (the Sixth Assessment Report) sounded an alarm about the urgent need to transition to net zero carbon emissions to avoid global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius. With buildings representing 40% of U.S. energy consumption and 39% of carbon emissions, energy efficiency and carbon mitigation strategies must be rapidly advanced in both new and existing buildings. States and local jurisdictions are answering the call with new policies that drive better energy and low-carbon outcomes.

But, how do you shift a building sector with decades of regulation and programs focused on energy efficiency (kWh and therms) to new metrics centered on governmental climate action goals of cutting carbon and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (also known as CO2 equivalent, or CO2e)? Turns out that while energy and carbon metrics are not the same, they do relate. A scan of 15 carbon neutral programs around the world, found certain commonalities as well as a number of variances. (See the chart below)

While developing the Insider’s Guide to Carbon Neutral Buildings, NBI reviewed more than 15 definitions of carbon neutral buildings. Click on the image above to enlarge.

This is the equivalent of having numerous sub-genres of hip-hop. There may be common threads but without an awareness of distinct characteristics it leads to confusion for music lovers and within the industry. Working with several industry trade organizations, NBI recently released a new guide aimed at helping policymakers, program designers, and building design teams better understand the aspects of carbon neutral buildings and to align policies, programs, and projects around the globe.

Many of the technologies associated with carbon neutral buildings are familiar from zero energy building approaches. Click on image to enlarge.

The Insider’s Guide to Carbon Neutral Buildings works to meet people where they are and quickly move them along the learning curve. The guide does not provide a “one size fits all” definition, but rather a framework that takes into account the spectrum of carbon neutral building aspects – from building operations to whole life embodied carbon neutrality. It includes eight components of energy-efficient carbon neutral buildings and a high-level framework that supports design practices and programs that encourage such buildings. This guide is an important step toward explaining carbon neutral building elements for those addressing the built environment in their climate change initiatives and a tool to help these market leaders explain the work ahead to clients, stakeholders, members, and others.

The core components of a carbon neutral building

The Insider’s Guide to Carbon Neutral Buildings defines the core components of carbon neutral buildings with the first four being very similar to those of zero energy building:
1. Maximize energy efficiency
2. Prioritize on-site renewables
3. Utilize off-site renewables
4. Measure and manage net zero operations

To effectively achieve carbon neutrality however, buildings must incorporate four additional components, including:
5. Eliminate on-site natural gas and other fossil fuel-based appliances
6. Optimize building-grid integration and on-site energy storage
7. Specify low global warming potential refrigerants in all-electric appliances
8. Select low embodied carbon materials

The first four components are more commonly understood as we have numerous examples of zero energy buildings, codes, policies, and programs. For example, while the majority of the zero energy projects in NBI’s Getting to Zero Database are all-electric, the other components of carbon neutral buildings are starting to be discussed more frequently by building professionals. As more technologies, processes, and standards emerge, these additional components of carbon neutral buildings will become more common. The guide provides explanations underlying these components and includes critical considerations such as site boundary, energy consumption time of use, quality of carbon offsets, and building lifecycle, and so on.

Building consensus through collaboration

Changes to the nation’s electricity system, innovations in technology, efforts to improve indoor air quality, and the building material industry’s ability to reduce carbon will continue to impact both building energy use and building CO2e emissions in the coming decades, all of which are crucial to the climate fight. But, just as this guide was a collaborative effort, the theme of collaboration will be a common one as we transition to a carbon free future. We need material and technology manufacturers to define what’s possible when creating carbon neutral products, just as much as we need policymakers and integrated design-build teams to create policies based on effective practices that lead us toward a future where carbon neutral buildings are the common goal.

To plug into the discussion and learn from real-world case studies, please join us in an upcoming webinar, on Thursday, September 23, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. PST, where we’ll take a deep dive into carbon neutral buildings.

In the meantime, please share the Insider’s Guide to Carbon Neutral Buildings with your own networks and send an email if there are any questions or comments.

Download the guide

by Webly Bowles, Project Manager