How lessons-learned from a state-of-the-art net-zero project can help us all reduce our impact
Now that everyone is finally talking about green buildings, the question becomes “Where do we need to go from here?”
The answer? Net-zero.
As a design principle, net-zero buildings—those that neither consume nor emit any carbon—is gaining considerable interest as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the fossil fuel use in a sector that uses approximately 40 percent of the total energy in the U.S.
Although they might not be sexy additions that make neighbors go “ooh and ah,” things like on-site power generation through solar panels or wind turbines, efficient lighting, or radically efficient appliances have obvious value.
And as the panelists pointed out, 90 percent of reducing home energy use is primarily something your neighbors can’t see: Efficiency.
Two of the panelists, Paul Holland and Linda Yates, are constructing a home in Portola Valley, California, that is a ‘poster child’ for net-zero energy. In their quest to construct the world’s most efficient residence that uses no fossil fuels, Holland and Yates assembled a team of the best and brightest in sustainable building professionals to oversee each aspect of the three-year project.
Last year, Holland and Yates hosted an open house for Rocky Mountain Institute and their supporters, showcasing a variety of educational checkpoints that were set up on the construction site.
Once the project is completed, the pair will demonstrate, document, and give away the intimate details of the process so that other new home builders can pursue their net-zero goals more easily—with readily accessible information, and a record of lessons-learned.
But an impressive, real-life example of a net-zero home still leaves many still scratching their heads. Those who rent, live in a condo or townhome, or plain don’t have enough money, may feel that a net-zero home is far out of reach.
According to panelist David Houghton, president of Resource Engineering Group, Inc. focusing on energy consumption is key.
“Whether it is light, heat, cooling, or insulation, it all ties back to energy,” Houghton says. Although significant barriers still exist to making every home net-zero, he said, people should start by understanding what is going on in their own house.
For years, Houghton has kept a close eye on his home’s energy meter, and has maintained data (electric bills, gas bills, etc.) in a spreadsheet that shows how much energy the building consumes and how much it emits.
This detailed report of home performance helps Houghton gauge how much energy and money is wasted every month. The data also provides insight into what efficiency improvements to cut back, and how to achieve the goals mapped out by the 2030 challenge.
“Improvements won’t result in much energy reduction per square foot if the right things aren’t done in the right order,” Houghton says. “Get a home-energy audit, seal the cracks, insulate your home properly, look at your lighting, and install occupancy sensors.”
So the take home message is: a home may not be net-zero, but small steps will bring people closer to the goal of living a low-impact, cost-effective, and energy-savvy lifestyle.
And until net-zero efficiency options are cheaper and easier to implement, homeowners, tenants and builders should keep abreast of the challenges, opportunities, and resources that reduce fossil-fuel emissions.