The Widespread Success of ZNE Hinges on the Bottom Line, But Whose?

In addition to my job at NBI, I’ve had the honor and privilege to serve on several boards, including Cascadia Green Building Council and the International Living Future Institute. My work has allowed me the opportunity to get to know a lot of people in the regional green building industry. The recent Net Positive Energy + Water conference was especially thrilling for me because I got to meet, hear, converse, share and compare experiences with many new people, not just the usual suspects and to me that is a positive sign.

And this advancement is not limited to the San Francisco Bay Area, or the West Coast. Across the country, there is growing consensus that the built environment has a critical role to play in the reversal of Climate Change and efforts to advance a restorative future. The view of zero net energy (ZNE) projects, which our 2014 Getting to Zero Status Update also suggests, is that they are necessary and more mainstream.

People are buoyed by the prospect that zero net energy efforts are projected to become a $1.3 trillion market by 2035, according to our partner, Navigant’s research. Continued energy efficiency and renewable energy technology improvements also are helping to enhance performance, reduce costs and increase ZNE interest.

Cost, not surprisingly, is one of the major barriers to widespread zero net energy adoption. When we were compiling the latest Getting to Zero Status Update and Webinar, we even phrased one of our polling questions as “Aside from cost, what are the biggest perceived challenges to implementing zero net energy projects?”

During my Net Positive Energy + Water conference panel discussion titled, “Net Zero Energy Costs and Financing: Models that work,” John Andary of Integral and Bill Campbell of Equilibrium Capital, and I were queried early and often about cost particulars. What does this project cost? What does it include; land, entitlements? Are we talking first costs, or life-cycle costs? One of the participants stated that it is always ambiguous what people mean by “cost”.

It was very clear to us that the next step in ZNE is to build consensus around what we mean when we say, “What does this project cost?” It might sound oversimplistic to say we shouldn’t only be talking about cost, we should be talking about value, which also means different things to different groups, like developers versus owner occupants.

When you look at individual projects and consider the thousands of decisions that go into designs, renovations and retrofits, you realize you can spend a lot or less on a green building, just as you can with non-green construction. Davis Langdon studies and the soon-to-be-released Integral study on the cost of ZNE buildings support that assertion.

Real world examples of Living Buildings, of which zero net energy is a subset, exist to further prove that point. Living Buildings actually generate more energy over the course of a year than they consume. How would you calculate the cost of a similar net positive, regenerative effect in your building or community? Moving forward, NBI will continue to work to elucidate the definitions of the cost and value of ZNE in the built environment. If we all give more than we take, I think that might add up to a future I want to see for my children and grandchildren. And I’d wager that’s even cost-effective.

Net Positive Energy + Water conference session
Net Positive Energy + Water conference session