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Net Zero Energy Buildings Are Poised for Growth

Neil Strother
Nov 29, 2018

Smart Building

We are on the doorstep of an important growth phase for net zero energy buildings over the coming decade. The trend won’t be a tidal wave, but more like a steadily rising creek.

One sign of this growth appeared a few weeks ago, when the largest net zero commercial building in the US opened for business in the Washington, DC suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. Called the Unisphere, the 210,000 square-foot structure houses the offices of United Therapeutics, a biotech firm focused on developing and commercializing new products to help patients that suffer from chronic or life-threatening conditions. The primary use of the Unisphere is to develop an unlimited supply of transplantable organs. The new structure features multiple approaches for achieving net zero status, including: 

  • Over 3,000 solar PV panels generating 1,175 MWh of energy each year, enough to power 100 homes
  • Daylight harvesting that allows dimming of the artificial lighting system when enough sunlight is available
  • Office area windows with electrochromic glass that changes tint levels based on season, location of the sun, and cloud cover
  • Windows and panels that open to allow natural ventilation between certain temperatures
  • A total of 52 closed-loop, dual-circuit geo-exchange wells 500 feet below the building provide energy storage
  • The Earth Labyrinth: a quarter-mile-long concrete maze located 12 feet below the building that acts as a natural ventilation system, moderating temperatures within an atrium
  • An atrium pool acting as a heat sink to balance the overall system and provide passive heating of the pool’s water
  • Extra electricity sent to the utility grid during peak production, while at night or off-peak, the grid supplies needed energy
Buildings Beyond the Unisphere

Beyond the Unisphere milestone, a major motivator behind the net zero energy building trend is about to kick in. The first of several deadlines for meeting California’s net zero energy building mandates is just 14 months away, as all new residential construction in the state must be net zero energy by 2020. The same rule will not apply to new commercial buildings until 2030, but the clock is ticking on that segment as well. The building retrofit market in California faces some stringent rules too, with 50% of commercial buildings needing to be retrofit to net zero by 2030, and 50% of new major state building renovations needing to be net zero by 2025.

California is not the only governmental body requiring these types of energy efficient buildings, as Europe has regulations in place to also drive this market, though with a nuance. EU regulators have established energy efficiency standards for its member states through the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which calls for all new buildings to be nearly zero energy by the end of 2020. 

There are other market forces at play as well, though not completely focused on net zero goals. Still, the emphasis is on increasing building energy efficiency. For example, nearly half (47%) of the building professionals responding to a recent global survey expect the majority (more than 60%) of their upcoming projects will be green by 2021, according to Dodge Data & Analytics. Moreover, Amazon envisions making energy efficiency a key aspect of its two new headquarters in New York City and Arlington, Virginia. Given the high visibility of those two projects, any efficiency best practices are likely to be replicated by others.

Highly energy efficient and net zero structures already exist around the globe, but we have yet to see the numbers grow dramatically. That won’t be the case in another 10 years or so. The total number is not estimated to be large compared to all buildings, but the momentum by then should provide a base from which other projects can take advantage of mistakes made, best practices, and presumably lower or at least moderate costs for the different technologies. In other words, some of the barriers to net zero should be lower, enabling more dynamic market growth. If you’d like to know more details about this market trend check out the Navigant Research report, Net Zero Energy Buildings.