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“Net Zero” Will Become Baseline, Despite Varied Definitions

Net Zero as a sustainability strategy is rapidly gaining traction in the regulatory environment. We increasingly see it as an option in Housing Authority design requirements for tax credit programs, and we anticipate it will become a requirement in municipal zoning and land use entitlement programs in the future. But what does Net Zero mean? It generally refers to either Energy or Emissions, and though the two are related, they are inherently very different. There is a confusing array of definitions among federal standards and the various sustainability certification programs – even the White House is in the process of establishing one for emissions. A sampling of definitions includes: 

  • From the Federal EPA regarding energy – “Simply put, Net Zero means consuming only as much energy as produced, achieving a sustainable balance.” 

  • The Federal DOE defines a Zero Energy Building as “an energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy.” 

  • ULI’s Greenprint Community defines Net Zero as “a building portfolio that is highly efficient and fully powered by on-site and off-site renewable energy sources.” 

  • Enterprise Community Partners, a nationwide nonprofit focused on addressing the shortage of affordable housing, combines energy and emissions: “A path to zero energy with strategies to help all developments move closer to zero emissions.”  

Lacking a common industry definition, achieving a Net Zero goal will be dependent upon the performance standards and design guidelines of the specific municipal or agency requirements, certification programs, and the owner’s goals and requirements. 

For achieving a Net Zero Energy goal, a project’s site has the greatest influence on the approach, especially for onsite energy generation. Smaller urban sites usually don’t provide sufficient site or roof area needed for the solar or wind energy generation required to offset the building’s energy use. In these situations, purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates (SREC’s) or contribution to a Community Solar program can replace onsite generation and contribute to achieving the goal. Conversely, larger rural or suburban sites can provide the necessary site area needed for solar arrays, wind turbines, or geothermal facilities. 

Net Zero Emissions is primarily achieved by targeting Step 1 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are those released in the operation of the building itself. Designing a highly efficient building envelope and systems results in reduced energy and fuel consumption, thereby lowering carbon emissions. Full building electrification, a topic of legislation across the country, targets elimination of fossil fuels usage and GHG emissions. 

In our view, Net Zero will eventually become the baseline instead of an option, as governments and communities continue to tackle environmental and climate change issues. With buildings producing approximately 40% of the world’s carbon emissions, the design, construction and property management industry must prepare for the challenges ahead in reaching Net Zero targets. Careful – and intentional – planning at the project outset can make Net Zero goals attainable and effective.

At FitzGerald, we believe Net Zero should be part of a larger sustainability plan that benefits the building, the occupant, and the community.