Policies Promoting Net Zero Energy Should Focus On Efficiency First

NBI and its partners, International Living Future Institute and Skanska, recently completed research on the costs associated with Zero Energy and Living Buildings™ for the District of Columbia Department of the Environment. The District has been a leader in high performance buildings and commissioned the research to help shape the next generation of policies and approaches toward a more prosperous and resilient future. Net Zero and Living Building Challenge Financial StudyNet Zero and Living Building Challenge Financial Study: A Cost Comparison Report for Buildings, investigated incremental costs for large office and multifamily buildings in the District, the policy implications apply to most all metropolitan areas with climate action plans that include a goal of net zero energy performance for buildings. These areas, typically urban centers with large building stock, face the challenge of limited available roof area to site photovoltaic (PV) arrays for renewable energy generation. From the financial perspective, the key findings show the importance of investing in energy efficiency first–before renewables. The research found that adding 1-3% to initial cost of construction for efficiency measures allowed new developments in the district to save up to 60% of their energy consumption. However, even an ultra-efficient, 300,000 square-foot building would need to ‘borrow’ roof space on six neighboring buildings in order to generate enough renewable power production to achieve the net zero result. Currently, owners who purchase these large renewable systems benefit from generous federal tax incentives and renewable energy credits that significantly increase the return on investment to over 30%. While these incentives for renewables are now plentiful, they may not be sustainable long-term. Moving forward, a policy framework that encourages deep energy efficiency is the most cost-effective and equitable solution. Incentive programs can help offset the incremental costs associated with an integrated design process necessary to achieve a result of ultra-low energy buildings. Benchmarking and disclosure data can be used to set clear energy targets by building types to guide this effort. But net zero buildings involve more than good design; they require attention to occupant use, operations and maintenance. Feedback on measured energy performance is critical to ensure the desired result is achieved. The good news is that net zero buildings are possible using today’s technologies. Cities and counties that create policies and incentives encouraging net zero energy are promoting resiliency in their community and advancing their own economic development. We applaud the District of Columbia for their leadership and ingenuity. Other leading cities can do the same and these findings and policy recommendations can help them outline their approach.