Net Zero Buildings: Leaders in Energy, Carbon, Water and Waste

A new report from the Energy Transitions Commission, a group of global leaders from across the energy landscape, reinforces that a net zero economy by 2050 is technically and economically possible. The report points to the need for electrification and urges governments, investors, and companies to accelerate the adoption of zero-carbon solutions now. That includes net zero buildings.
Pursuing net zero goals is a climate imperative. Globally, the cost of climate change is expected to be in the trillions by mid-century, but the United Nations (UN) maintains that readily-available solutions exist – and they exist for more than 70 percent of today’s emissions.

Images with people of the first LEED Zero Energy certification.
It starts with measurement

Governments and companies are increasingly committing to net zero targets. New technologies and resources are making this feasible for myriad project types in diverse locations. The move toward net zero begins with measurement. Tools like the Arc performance platform, which also powers LEED v4.1, the latest version of the green building rating system, are critical in benchmarking carbon and other key sustainability metrics. 

Knowing where a building or space is starting from, is the first step in working toward becoming net zero. Platforms like Arc allow owners and managers to see how different strategies will impact building performance and which decisions will get them closer to that net zero target. Not all buildings will be able to transition to net zero energy or water on-site resources. However, tracking systems encourage progress and support the adoption of strategies that can reduce energy demand, improve efficiency, and identify opportunities to integrate renewables. These intermediate steps are necessary and needed in order to make progress industry-wide.

Certifying net zero

For buildings that are on track for net zero, verification of those goals remains a priority and a method for communicating progress among occupants, investors, and other stakeholders. The U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED Zero certification provides the accountability, recognizes leadership and helps build trust.

LEED Zero defines leadership for the next generation of LEED projects and is available for carbon, energy, waste, and water. Twenty certifications have been awarded across the U.S., China, and Brazil with spaces types ranging from manufacturing facilities to historic offices. The certification builds on an initial LEED certification and specifically acknowledges net zero leadership.

LEED Zero Energy

It might surprise some to hear that the first LEED Zero certification didn’t come from China, Europe, or the U.S. It came from the city of Curitiba in Brazil. The engineering and green building consulting firm Petinelli felt they had to lead by example if they wanted clients to consider pushing for net zero. Its own office was in a converted warehouse and certified to LEED for Operations and Maintenance (O+M) in 2018. It achieved the first LEED Zero Energy certification. All energy is produced onsite by a solar array that generates an estimated 125% of the project’s energy demand on an annual basis. The space had been operating at net positive energy for over a year and was able to easily assemble the data required to certify. Achieving LEED Zero Energy validated the team’s focus on energy efficiency and operational performance in converting the warehouse to their new office space.

Since the Petinelli office, more than a dozen LEED Zero Energy certifications have been awarded, including a school, manufacturing facilities, offices and government buildings. It’s an attainable milestone and a natural next step for buildings that count themselves as sustainability leaders.

LEED Zero Carbon

Renewable Energy Center, a 7,119-square-meter, all-solar green building located in Beijing’s Olympic Park was the first to achieve a LEED Zero Carbon certification. It features flexible thin film solar modules on the top and sides of the building. It adopted a copper indium gallium (CIGS) thin-film technology for power generation and a micro-grid management system that optimizes renewable energy generation, consumption, storage and sales. The project team created a unique system that enabled energy sharing with the company’s headquarters to from a regional microgrid. The building had previously achieved LEED Platinum certification and pursued LEED Zero to obtain third-party verification of their sustainability efforts. 

The climate crisis requires that the building industry make significant progress in reducing carbon and specifically transitioning to net zero. Projects like Hanergy’s Renewable Energy Center prove it’s possible. The bar has been set and a LEED Zero Carbon certification will distinguish the leaders.

Building for resilience

The net zero conversation tends to focus on the need to reduce carbon emissions and that is paramount, but in the face of climate change and other global threats, it also becomes a strategy for enhancing resilience. In the U.S. from 2017 to 2019 the total cost of weather and climate disasters exceeded $460 billion. Meanwhile the International Renewable Energy Agency projects climate-related savings will be worth an estimated $160 trillion over the three decades. The drive to create more resilient buildings and businesses requires investing now and dollars focused on transitioning real estate assets to be net zero will help owners be better prepared for the future.

Projects that can adapt to and mitigate the effects of severe events are more valuable assets. Climate action is no longer about preventing the effects of climate change, which have already arrived. Instead, investments in resilient, sustainable, healthy, and equitable design, construction and operations provide an opportunity for governments, businesses, and communities to prepare for and recover from these events when they do occur. 

A regenerative future

Green building leadership is a journey, not a moment in time. Net zero is where the industry needs to go, but USGBC has been laying the foundation for what comes next. The world faces staggering challenges through 2050 in terms of water scarcity, air quality, population growth, and climate change. To help address these issues, a LEED Positive vision will guide USGBC in transitioning LEED from strategies that reduce the environmental and social impacts of buildings to strategies that cause no harm and begin the process of healing and repair.

Green building has become a global force for good and as we continue to look ahead at what comes, next the industry must simultaneously be making tangible, positive impacts now and that starts with a commitment to net zero.

As the UN noted, there are readily available solutions that exist for tackling emissions and other climate challenge.  It’s up to the buildings industry to take action.

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