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With the added complexity and cost inherent in a net-zero energy building, facility managers might find themselves with an uphill battle in the boardroom. At this point, the vast majority of office buildings — especially multistory structures — will not be able to do net-zero energy without a premium and payback well outside the range of acceptable return on investment. The NREL building, for instance, is estimated to cost $280 per square foot, about double the cost of a traditional office building.
"We're always looking for new ways to drive the business case for energy efficiency," says Walraven. "But we'll never spend $2 million on a LEED plaque or a net-zero energy plaque just to put it up in the building. We need to drive the business case whereby there are returns that are compelling. We have to save more than we spend."
Still, Walraven says, her organization's goal is to continue to move in the direction of net-zero. "Solar as a service" (also known as power purchasing agreements, or PPA) is one way Walraven says her organization is getting creative regarding its path toward net-zero. Solar as a service is an agreement whereby a third-party company installs photovoltaic panels on a facility's roof, and then sells the electricity to tenants at a reduced rate, while paying rent for using the roof.
For some organizations, however, cost is only one part of the equation. "The value of net-zero energy buildings is to show that such buildings are not science fiction," says John Petersen, director of the environmental studies program at Oberlin College. Additionally, even if the economics don't exactly make the board of directors salivate, return on investment can be augmented by the educational value of net-zero energy buildings like Oberlin's Lewis Center, says Petersen.
The university still has a responsibility to look at the building in the context of the college as a whole, though. "You have to find a balance between buildings that are examples of what is possible, and therefore create educational value, and strategies that reduce energy the most throughout the campus," he says. "But the built environment is definitely part of the education, so use educational value as part of the justification for net-zero energy. Making net-zero energy a priority in institutions of higher education is critical because these are the people who are going out into the real world with what they've learned here."
Without having to wait for colleges to churn out a cadre of net-zero-energy-knowledgeable designers and engineers, several factors may speed up the widespread adoption of net-zero energy buildings. In general, change moves slowly in the buildings industry. But, if there's one thing taught by the quick growth in popularity of the LEED rating system, it's that when a strategy yields a competitive advantage, technology and expertise move more quickly than normal to align with it.
For net-zero energy buildings, competitive advantage takes two forms: If net-zero energy buildings themselves are seen as more attractive to potential tenants, students, employees or even patients, that will drive growth. Secondly, if consultants, architects and engineers possess net-zero energy know-how, as demand increases, they'll get more work. Both of these factors can contribute to a total reshaping of the market.
But a few other things can help as well. For one, the cost of on-site renewable energy needs to go down and efficiencies need to improve. "Right now, the sheer cost of renewables makes net-zero energy very difficult," says Crawley. Federal and state incentives, some of which are already in place, need to continue to evolve to help defray the cost not only for owners to purchase these products, but also for manufacturers to churn out new and innovative products. Entrepreneurs may be reluctant to invest in research and development for new technologies that may not hit the market for five to 10 years if there's no guarantee those products can enter the market and be competitive. "To be truly scalable, renewables need government support," says Walraven.
In addition to government help, Jacobson says that the industry simply needs to better understand how renewables work. "What's really needed is a renewable energy procurement consultant," he says. "This sort of expertise would be valuable for helping us know whether it's better to do a power purchasing agreement or use on-site PV. We need people who really understand the economics of renewables."
Other building technologies — from LED lighting to window film — need to become more widely accepted. Facility managers also need to learn how to make data more visible, and thus better understood, says Petersen. One solution is dashboards located in prominent spots in the facility and on the Web that provide real-time energy data. "It's important to translate kilowatt-hours into other currencies, like carbon emissions," he says. "Making data visible and relatable is actually part of the continuous commissioning process."
At the end of the day, however, market transformation will only occur with buy-in from owners and facility managers who set net-zero energy as a non-negotiable goal, and then diligently follow through. A net-zero goal, says Jacobson, is actually easier to follow through on than some nebulous "30 percent less than code" goal, because oftentimes, 29 percent or 25 percent or even 20 percent is deemed to be close enough. Net-zero energy is a very specific goal, he says, and a very clear one at that. It results in a true accounting of how energy is used through the design process and then into operations as well. There's no manipulating of models to get the required number.
So the more that owners and facility managers recognize net-zero energy as the next stage in green building, the sooner it will catch on. And the tipping point at which "next" becomes "now" arrives sooner than anyone may have guessed.
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