Volume 51, Issue 1 - January 2016
Causing a Racquet
More than 230 net zero projects have been logged as of December 2015. California is by far the biggest user of ZNE buildings, with at least 70 buildings or projects in the state.
Owner-occupied buildings have been the primary adopter of ZNE, largely due to the savings in owner operating costs. The education sector is leading the way thus far, particularly K-12 buildings. NBI CEO Ralph DiNola says that market is ideal for ZNE for many reasons, one being that it’s a “wise use of taxpayers’ resources.”
“Money that goes to paying utility bills doesn’t go to teachers and programs for students,” he says, noting that public schools in California pay approximately a combined $700 million in energy bills. “Imagine if we can get those to ZNE buildings,” he says.
Studies suggest occupant comfort and optimum daylighting affect students’ ability to learn, something that also makes a more “green” solution idea for education.
NBI has participated in workshops and school retrofit pilot projects to show students first hand that buildings can achieve zero net energy. “We’re educating the next generation of leaders and policymakers,” says DiNola.
Where It’s Headed
Office buildings, which also often fall into the owner-occupied category, are a close second in ZNE adoption. DiNola says that’s partly because office buildings are generally “low-energy intensity.”
Additionally, he says NBI is developing an energy code for multifamily buildings and is focused on the California market, as approximately half of the residential construction there is multifamily.
DOE energy technology and policy specialist Cody Taylor says while federal net zero goals exist, the state and local level is “where the rubber meets the road.” Local governments are able to work more with their particular markets.
“You see states and localities contemplating or enacting policies that are tangible,” says Taylor. “States such as California and Massachusetts are putting out goals saying, ‘we want to be this far by this date.’ And they’re backing it up with research.”
DiNola agrees. “Cities compete and states compete,” he says. “They want to lead, and I think this drives the advancement.”
He says many jurisdictions are targeting 2030 as the year when codes are put in place that require all new buildings to be ZNE.
That’s the goal set in California with Title 24; other states such as Washington and Oregon have similar objectives. In fact, a regional organizing group called the Pacific Coast Collaborative—which encompasses Alaska, British Columbia, California, Oregon and Washington—is studying zero net energy goals.
DiNola says New York State is working on a stretch energy code, and Massachusetts has a zero net energy task force. NBI is also working with a ZNE task force in Rhode Island, as well as other local municipalities.
“Cities and states are where the action is,” he says. “It’s great to have federal policy. It’s great to have a vision for the future, but … states and cities have the ability to put these things in place.”
Speaking of Solar
Glass Playing a Role
Each building uses its own unique set of characteristics to achieve net zero.
For example, a one- or two-story building that is much wider and longer than it is tall has more roof area for solar panels, and can produce more energy that way. A taller building with the same total square footage has less roof area and must rely on generating energy in other ways, such as solar panels on the façade or more expensive photovoltaic glass.
Ultimately, however, the format is often similar from one project to the next. The building must increase thermal performance, reduce artificial lighting and plug load, and use an efficient HVAC system to get energy use low enough so solar panels can produce the necessary amount of energy.
Glazing is the key.
High-performance fenestration systems, strategic glazing sizes and orientation, operable windows and the use of dynamic glass all contribute directly to energy efficiency.
Taylor says the building envelope is critical because of its lifespan.
“The envelope is the longest-lasting part of any building,” he says. “… Therefore, it’s the part that is worth paying the most careful attention to as far as choices being made at the design and construction levels. If you make good choices, you get the benefits of them for a long time. If you make poor choices, you will suffer the consequences for a long time.”
In terms of glazing, Taylor says new, innovative technologies such as electrochromic and photovoltaic glazing are becoming more important, but the most critical element is simply R-value. “That’s the solid performance baseline we need,” he says.
It’s in the Skin
Perception of cost has been a huge hurdle for the net zero movement.
“The first question that always comes up is, ‘how much more does it cost?’” says DiNola. “But there is evidence that you can design, build and operate a zero net energy building at the same cost of a traditional building.”
Taylor says net zero shouldn’t be thought of as something that’s “tacked on afterward,” but rather treated as a fundamental priority when engaging the design team to deliver on a budget.
“We’ve seen plenty of projects that have done that well,” he says. “They’ve delivered zero energy buildings comparable in cost to other real estate being developed in their market.”
The upfront cost is only the beginning of the equation, however. The purpose of net zero is ultimately to reduce energy costs to nothing, which provides a payback over time to the building owner.
The glass industry doesn’t have to look far for an example.
New Jersey-based fabricator McGrory Glass has 2,782 solar panels on its roof, generating enough electricity—combined with other efficiency measures—to produce net zero consumption of energy.
“It started with the idea that we understood the need for the growing use of electricity use in our business,” says engineering director Jim Gulnick. “We’re continually bringing in new processes, functions and capabilities, as well as redoing old ones to stay up to date technology-wise.”
He says going solar has also made McGrory re-think its approach to purchasing and operating equipment.
“Higher efficiency operations, mini-batch flexible processing, right sizing of capacities, and production optimization are key,” he says. “At the same time we found our need for electrical processes growing, there’s been an international movement in the architectural community to create net zero green buildings. We’re in the industry, and it’s important for us to give back as well as show that we’re committed to the environment long term.”
Those factors, combined with the future return on the investment, made it an easy decision. When assessing the cost of going net zero, Gulnick says it’s a commitment to long-term planning.
“You look at the long-term interest of your own business,” he says. “For us, we’ve been around 30 plus years and plan to be around for many more. … If you’re looking at ‘how much money can I make this year?’ an investment in renewable energy production may not be right for you. If you’re saying ‘I want to be around for the long haul,’ then it makes sense.”
McGrory is on pace for a five- to seven-year payback on its photovoltaic system, and it took advantage of the 30-percent grant the federal government awards to renewable energy generation owners. In addition, the state of New Jersey has additional incentives based on solar energy generation where the company gets paid in the open market by energy generators for every Megawatt hour of renewable energy that the electric utilities do not have to generate themselves.
The company’s move to net zero is an example of how the ZNE conversation his shifted. Much like other developments in the building industry, net zero started as a concept, was nudged along by the design community and now is demanded by the end user.
“The biggest thing that has happened is simply that people have noticed,” says Taylor. “We’ve gone from a handful of design teams out there initiating net zero to a place where we have large owners of buildings who are saying, ‘We should think about adding this to our portfolio.’”
Nick St. Denis is an assistant editor for USGlass magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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