While public utilities in the United States struggle to make energy cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant, a small group of contrarians is stubbornly heading in the opposite direction. 

Their goal is net zero energy, a building/energy paradigm based on the premise that, if all structures made as much energy as they used, there would be no need for more electricity generation. 

The principle is one that has firmly taken hold in Seattle, where the Northwest Power and Conservation Council – which plans for power needs in Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Washington State – has determined that energy efficiency alone can cover power needs for the next two decades. 

Electric utility executives and planners agree. The most important considerations in meeting future electricity needs are developing renewables and energy storage, and integrating/delivering renewable energy technologies. Not building more power plants.


Net Zero, Zero Net, ZEB 

Call it net zero, or zero net – or, as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) labels it, Zero Energy Building (ZEB) – the goal is non-distributed energy: each building unit providing for itself, in a sweeping takeoff on the ideals of the homesteaders and survivalists. 

But this ideal – electricity independent of an outside source of delivery – isn’t the whole story. Nor does it mean that electric utilities – whether investor-owned, municipal, or even rural electric cooperatives (RECs) – will be put out of business. In fact, the larger number of ZEBs, both commercial and residential, are likely to be grid-tied, as businesses, homeowners and utilities rely on one another to keep the power flowing. And this model offers even greater opportunities for electric utilities to both own and offer a wider range of electric generating resources. 

In fact, electricity market insiders remain certain that investor-owned utilities will continue to play a central role in the expansion of distributed generation and renewables, thus remaining profitable as electricity demand remains stagnant, thanks to efficiency measures and technological advances.


Financing the ZEB Future 

Nor does the source of financing (venture capital, asset finance, public markets, or private equity) seem to matter. In 2008, the Investment Tax Credit and the Production Tax Credit, or ITC/PTC, sparked the biggest investment in renewable energy technologies in a century. By 2014, with renewables like solar and wind having proven both their production and financial capabilities, private investment took over, reaching $281 billion globally, and the trend seems likely to continue as government, state, utility and local incentives encourage further adoption. 

More important, this almost ubiquitous adoption of clean energy is driving down energy prices as a whole, and only part of the savings can be attributed to cheap, abundant, domestic natural gas supplies. 

Prime examples of this “ultimate green building statement” range from the anticipated Bride of the Gulf in Basra, Iraq to Tesla’s gigafactory in Reno, Nevada. And in San Francisco, California, home of all things “green”, DPR Construction recently completed its Bay Area Regional Office, viewed as a paradigm for green building thanks to the fact that DPR, a private company, is both the owner and the contractor. 

The building itself, a renovation, is now the city’s first commercial office building to achieve Net-Zero Energy Building (NZEB) certification from the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) through its Living Building Challenge, or LBC. It is also certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council, or USGBC. 

In Minnesota, the Science Museum boasts a zero-energy Science House. Dated as far back as 2003, and thanks to funding from Xcel Energy (NYSE: XEL), the building demonstrates that ZEB technology is effective even in harsh climates. 

Skanska (OTCBB: SKBSY) is another firm vested in net zero energy. In 2012, Skanska USA Building, Inc. acting as general contractor, built the Bertschi School Living Science Building, located in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Neighborhood. The non-profit school’s science wing was one of the first projects in the world to pursue the Living Building Challenge (LBC) 2.0 criteria and the first to achieve it. 

Schools, colleges, football teams, hospitals – all see the advantages of Zero Energy Building. Late in 2015, Hampshire College, Amherst, Mass. – a private liberal arts college – announced its decision to get 100 percent of electricity for the R. W. Kern Center from solar panels, thus earning the LBC’s full certification. The San Francisco 49ers Levi Stadium is net zero. In Wisconsin, the Gunderson Health System generates all the electricity it needs via biogas, solar, wind and landfill methane. And in Illinois, in February of this year, (John) Deere & Co. (NYSE: DE) shareholders considered a move to make all buildings net-zero by 2030. 

The federal government’s ZEB initiative is driven by Executive Order 13693, signed by President Barack Obama on March 19, 2015. It mandates that all new federal buildings achieve net zero energy by 2030. The government is the largest consumer of energy in the U.S., with 500,000 buildings, most predating any effort at efficiency. The two biggest participants to date are the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, one of 12 federally operated facilities, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.


ZEB, Green Building, Energy Efficiency: Defining the Whole Ball of Wax 

In many cases, Zero Energy Building doesn’t work or play well with others until the equation is complete. Builders must therefore add energy efficiency and address environmental considerations to solve the problem. For example, at the Bertschi School, builders added not only a 20-kilowatt solar PV system, which generates all the electricity the building uses, but also a water collection and onsite treatment facility via cisterns, a living wall, and a composting toilet. All features are fully immersive, allowing students to see, touch, measure and study them as part of a green living curriculum. 

The U.S. Department of Energy calls its green metric the Building Energy Asset Scoring Tool (i.e., the Asset Score). The Asset Score is free, but it does not measure environmental impacts. The ILFI does. Its LBC 2.0 criteria uses seven main criteria: siting, water use, energy use, materials use, the health and satisfaction of the inhabitants, beauty, and the building’s social equality – that is, is it affordable over a wide range of incomes. Five of the seven are essential, but ZeroEnergy construction remains in a category by itself, at least as far as certification goes. 

ILFI and the USGBC continue to upgrade their requirements, pushing the envelope of the construction industry to greater innovation. Several other organizations also drive net-zero energy and green building principles, among them New York State’s NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority),the National Institute of Building Sciences, and the New Buildings Institute. The Green Building Alliance offers a more comprehensive list of net zero and green building certification methods and agencies.

Tomorrow, Part II will examine the growth of ZEB in the residential construction industry.

Companies to Watch:

*  Skanska (OTCBB: SKBSY), operating in both the commercial and private sectors, for both public and private entities. Their slogan is, “At Skanska, we get to build what matters,” – and what matters most in the era of climate change is clean energy and energy independence. 

*  The Blackstone Group (NYSE:BX), which recently acquired flexible insulative foam manufacturer Armacell. In 2015, the company won the Gold MarCom Award and was recognized for excellence at the International Green Building Conference in Singapore.

*  Dupont (NYSE: DD), makers of Tyvek, have taken center stage in the building vapor barrier manufacturing arena for three decades, and are considered still the best by many builders.

*  CertainTeed, a private firm operating under the aegis of Saint-Gobain S.A. (EPA:SGO) – a French multinational, manufactures everything insulative for the North American building industry., is fast becoming a competitor to Dupont.

*  W.R. Grace & Co. (NYSE: GRA), makes Perm-A-Barrier® VPL, a plasticizer/phthalate/halogen-free spray-on vapor barrier, with or without foam plastic insulation. Grace, which declared bankruptcy in 2001 after a massive, class-action asbestos lawsuit after the mine of the same name in Libby, Montana – emerged in 2014 to devote its skills to making more environmentally sensitive products.


Jeanne Roberts is an award winning freelance writer covering the environment, sustainability, social justice, health, politics, and the natural world. She has roots in the corporate world as a California reporter and a communications specialist at a large public utility and has spent the past 10 years working as an editor for a small-cap stock site, and as an environmental/political/social justice blogger for The PanelistCelsias,Cooler PlanetDeSmogBlogEnergy BoomSolveClimate.com, the Clean Tech Blog,EarthTechling, and various other online publications. Ms. Roberts has written a book on alternative energy sources, sustainable home building, and environmental initiatives for homeowners available on Amazon.