County of San Diego’s Alpine Branch Library is a zero-net-energy building. | Images courtesy a representative of C.W. Driver Companies

Guest Column – December 2018: The Future of Sustainable Construction

Carrie Rossenfeld Guest Column

From SoCal Real Estate’s December 2018 issue:

By Andy Feth, project executive, C.W. Driver Companies

Andy Feth

According to the New Buildings Institute, there are currently 67 zero-net-energy–verified and 415 zero-net-energy–emerging projects in the United States. The majority of these are in California, a state that leads the way with the nation’s most ambitious zero-net-energy initiatives.

California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed Senate Bill 100, a commitment to having 100 percent “clean energy” by 2045. In addition, the California Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan includes goals for all new commercial construction and 50 percent of existing commercial building retrofits to be zero net energy by 2030. The Architecture 2030 goal is for all new buildings and major renovations to be carbon neutral by that same 2030 timeframe. Zero net energy buildings will play a vital role in helping utilities, owners, contractors, designers, and developers work together to achieve these goals.

What is zero net energy? A building is considered zero net energy if it generates renewable energy to meet its own consumption requirements. This is typically achieved through a combination of solar panels, other generation sources and energy-efficiency measures that minimize the amount of energy a building produces.

Ideally, a zero-net-energy building would produce more energy than it needs to allow for a margin of error in the energy modeling during design and degradation of the photovoltaic panels over time. Zero-net-energy–verified projects use an average of 60 percent less energy than comparable commercial buildings, and 46 percent less than new buildings under Title 24, one of the most stringent codes in the country. Given that electricity costs make up 30 percent of a building’s operating costs, achieving zero net energy can result in significant long-term savings.

What’s the best way to attain zero net energy? Energy-efficient materials, appliances and systems should be prioritized throughout the building process. Some of the most effective options include:

• Glazed windows that take advantage of natural light at north elevations
• Minimize glazing at south and west elevations and utilization of shading devices
• Optimized HVAC systems
• LED lighting and motion sensors
• Insulation for floors, walls and ceilings
• Air sealing of exterior envelope
• Education of end users to ensure operational efficiency

When it comes to installing onsite energy-generation sources, solar panels are often the go-to source. But depending on the weather in your building’s area, it may be prudent to consider wind, hydro, geothermal, and other options as well. For larger sites, a combination of these sources can help ensure there isn’t a lapse in generation. Starting in 2020, all new homes and small apartment buildings in California must incorporate rooftop solar. It’s likely that similar regulations will be put in place for commercial buildings, so even if you’re not ready to commit to zero net energy on a project, it’s wise to incorporate at least some element of on-site generation.

Some of these measures may appear costly to implement, but technology prices have decreased yearly as sustainable materials and systems become increasingly popular. For example, the cost of LED lighting decreased 90 percent from 2008 to 2015. As energy efficiency becomes a way of life, costs will only continue to fall as new technology develops.

Additionally, tax credits, low-interest loans, utility rebates, and other incentives for zero-net-energy projects are available in many areas. They vary by location and change over time, so you’ll want to check the project’s zip code in the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency® to see what types of savings are currently available. The LEED designation has a significant overlap with zero net energy, so if your project is within LEED requirements you’re already well on your way to pursuing zero net energy.

California may be leading the zero-net-energy effort, but it doesn’t stand alone. Zero-net-energy buildings are in more than 44 states, totaling more than 45 million square feet of development. Private sector investment has driven a 700 percent increase in zero-net-energy buildings since 2012.

Between the environmental benefits, long-term cost savings and incentives, zero net energy offers many benefits for owners, operators, and society as a whole. As its implementation continues to become more accessible and affordable, it’s likely that zero net energy will become the norm for construction projects in California and nationwide.

Andy Feth is project executive at C.W. Driver Companies, a builder serving California since 1919. In 2019, the general contracting firm celebrates 100 years of service. As a leading provider of general-contracting and construction-management services, C.W. Driver Companies covers a broad spectrum of industries, including education, commercial/office, technology, healthcare/biomedical, mixed-use, assisted living, entertainment, retail, industrial, and civic.