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The Importance of Net-Zero Energy Goals

Today's tip of the day is about why the actual goal of being net-zero energy is important.

The November cover story of Building Operating Management magazine details how a crop of recent net-zero energy buildings is being operated to maintain (or even improve) energy efficiency. Not a pie-in-the-sky moonshot anymore, the number of net-zero energy buildings and "emerging" net-zero energy buildings (buildings designed to be ultra-efficient with a goal of adding alternative energy generation to be net-zero at a later date) is increasing. These buildings represent the ultimate in high-performance - and by most accounts, the future of buildings.

As you may know, net-zero energy designation is, in some ways, a matter of accounting— on an annual basis, a building must use less energy than it is able to generate. The key is to design to be efficient as possible, and then squeeze out every possible kilowatt-hour in operations — especially plug loads, which in high-performance, ultra-efficient buildings can make up as much as 50 percent of the load.

But in researching the piece, one theme kept coming up again and again — the importance of the goal of net-zero energy itself. Goals are what bring the design team and the facilities team together, instilling a more collegial atmosphere than usually exists during building hand-off. Goals are what bring accolades, when they're achieved. And goals like net-zero energy are what move the industry forward.

Cathy Higgins is research director at the New Buildings Institute, and an expert on net-zero energy buildings. She talked at length about the importance of a net-zero energy goal, whether in the first year of operation or at some point in the future — as long as that point is well designed.

"Net-zero energy is a goal that's much more precise than a 'percent better than code' goal," she says. "The goal first is ultra-low energy buildings." Higgins mentions that there will be a barrier to the amount of renewable energy some organizations can generate — whether that barrier is cost or physical space. "But the important thing is to have a target," she says.

Whether your building is targeting net-zero energy or simply a better Energy Star score, setting that specific goal, and mapping a plan to get there, is what is important. Don't just assume that a building will meet its design targets, or if you're already ultra-efficient, that there's nothing else you can do to improve. As one owner of a net-zero energy building says, in possibly the understatement of the year, "You have to maintain it. It's not just going to run by itself forever."


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