The challenge of achieving a net zero, carbon neutral future is significant. In recent years, it has been compared to the NASA space program and JFK’s We Choose to Go to the Moon speech in 1962. The notion that although the challenge is immense, the American technological might is greater and the same way we achieved the near impossible in 1969, we can do the same with net zero energy.
This is not an accurate comparison; Kennedy faced a far greater challenge in 1962 as no one had previously been to the moon or had any idea how to get there. Net-zero is different.
The New Normal
This isn’t uncharted territory, we know how to achieve net-zero design and are incorporating these principles into buildings today. Technology is not the sole solution, although certainly plays a part. Today, personal choices and finances are the largest barriers to net-zero— it’s not a lack of technology, know-how, or skill. What we need is recalibration of how we design, build, finance our projects, and most importantly how we engage with our environment. Because if we already know how to accomplish this today, the difference between doing and not doing is not so great.
Part of the problem is how the concept of net-zero has been branded: net-zero energy sounds like an impossible feat, and that’s mostly because it is. Buildings need energy and likely always will; what they don’t need is to emit carbon dioxide. Fossil fuel burning for energy production emits millions of tonnes of CO2 and, although invisible to the eye, CO2 is tangible and measurable with one metric ton equaling a 25’ cube. Many of our most sustainable, LEED Platinum buildings today still operate in the realm of environmental degradation. A building that achieves an 80% reduction in energy demand is in an elite crowd, yet still is responsible for a sizable stack of CO2 “cubes.”
What is needed is not so much a progression of sustainable design but instead a bifurcation from current practices. Disruptive change is needed because of how “green” design has been considered thus far, analogous to the prototypical American lawn. Certainly natural in appearance but in reality far from it, often a carefully selected non-native monoculture species maintained through intensive irrigation and dichotomous additives like fertilizers and pesticides— making it fundamentally not part of nature. Buildings which reflect this contrived nature are vulnerable, fragmented, and much like the lawn, need constant maintenance to retain their health and functionality.
The future of net-zero doesn’t look like a monoculture. It’s messy, diverse, complex and connected resulting in an inherently more resilient and efficient system— both in operation and cost. Like nature, it relies upon virtuous, self-propagating cycles where the output of one flow becomes the input, feedstock for another. The first step is to reduce demand for energy within the design. Often a small reduction can be achieved through passive design strategies such as orientating a building to reduce direct solar gain. Next, a more substantial reduction can be realized through system selection and technology, whether it be a more efficient ventilation system or daylight sensors for lighting. In total, at least a 60% energy demand reduction should be implemented in order to viably produce, at minimum, the equivalent amount of energy on-site using carbon neutral sources.
The sources available will vary depending on geography, climate, project type and a myriad of other factors. At times they will be obvious, such as solar or wind power, whereas other times the solution may be disguised as a deficit, like compostable garbage or even human waste. Grid supplied energy should be minimized with the ultimate goal of producing more carbon-neutral energy than your facility consumes with any surplus returned to the grid.
At Perkins+Will we are completing the first generation of buildings which embody this new vocabulary with our Vancouver office leading the first projects including the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS). Located on the University of British Columbia campus, CIRS is a 60,000 sf living laboratory for sustainability research, housing researchers from private, public, and non-governmental organization sectors. Designed to be the most sustainable building in North America, CIRs goes beyond net-zero to generate 40% more energy on-site than it uses. This ‘living building’ harvests sunlight, captures waste heat from nearby buildings, and exchanges heating and cooling with the ground. It returns 600-megawatt-hours of surplus energy back to campus while removing 170 tonnes of GHG emissions annually.
The number of net-zero buildings in the US today can be counted in the dozens, and as a result cost data from completed projects is minimal. However the data we do have reflects an undeniable trend: net-zero pays it forward. A recent study revealed that achievement of net-zero, including the cost of both demand reduction and energy generation, necessitates a 5-19% total cost increase today depending on the project, but pays a return on investment of up to 30% per year including tax incentives. Many companies exist today to provide 3rd party financing for energy generation, typically for solar, and utilize Purchase Power Agreements. To put it simply, a company pays to install, maintain and own an array on a host’s building or site. That company then sells the power generated to the host under a long term fixed contract at a rate typically guaranteed to be cheaper than the grid. This generates profit while offering clean energy, a win-win. To fuel exponential growth, two changes are needed to alter the current financing structure; a rethinking of who provides the capital, and reevaluating the systems that capital ultimately supports. Today the vast majority of PPAs are solar based agreements, as they are the simplest to calculate and forecast. The future will be integrated solutions that address all of the scenarios in which solar is not optimal, whether it be spatial or climatic constraints (imagine trying to fit a solar array large enough to meet 100% demand on a skyscraper in Toronto). It will require capital not only from singular sources but also from crowdsource funding— everyday people contributing small amounts as investments.
An engineer colleague works for a firm that completes pro-bono projects across the globe and is currently completing one in Haiti. Due to the unreliability of the electricity they are incorporating a solar array on-site. As the client does not have the capital, the employees of the firm are financing the system and will be paid back over time through the electricity sales. Due to the nature of the project and the significant challenges that exist in Haiti, the intent is not to make a profit; however that opportunity exists today throughout North America and has not been fully realized. Currently it is being seized by private companies with their own capital, but to accelerate progress the reward must be opened up to a wider range of investors.
Imagine nurses investing in a solar array for their new hospital
Imagine teachers investing in a solar array for their new school
Imagine readers of this article investing their 401k contributions in renewable energy financing
Paul Hawken sums it up, simply stating, “Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades. This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken.”