Net-zero energy: Efficiency and renewables in development

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At Fresh Energy, net zero is about energy. In very broad terms, net-zero energy means you produce enough energy to offset the amount of energy used. Net-zero energy is not the same as net-zero waste. Net-zero waste focuses on keeping trash from landfills and incinerators through concepts like minimizing packaging materials and reusing materials. It does not focus on energy efficiency or energy production.


Buildings in the United States use roughly 40 percent of total energy used in the United States annually, meaning they play a critical role in lowering energy costs and usage.


Net-zero buildings are built to use as little energy as possible by using thoughtful design and good construction practices to maximize energy efficiency. This can include air-tight walls and ceilings, passive solar heating and cooling techniques, daylighting, and automatic thermostats, occupancy sensors or timers for electricity and energy-efficient windows and appliances.

Many people are familiar with the concept of a net-zero energy building, but net-zero energy neighborhoods also exist. In general, net-zero energy neighborhoods offset their total annual energy consumption with onsite energy production. There are a number of ways to calculate this total, but most agree with the two-fold approach of making systems and buildings as energy efficient as possible, and then producing enough renewable energy to cover the buildings’ energy needs. Some projects include covering the infrastructure of the neighborhood as well. Some research has shown that grouping sets of buildings and systems together increases the chance of achieving net zero more than through individual buildings alone.

In addition to energy-efficient buildings, net-zero energy neighborhoods have other energy reduction opportunities. Installing energy-efficient streetlights or reducing groundwater runoff can minimize impact on the local infrastructure. Transportation impacts can be offset by designing for low-impact transportation like biking and walking, or providing electric vehicle plug-in stations.

Energy production differs by neighborhood but almost always uses a form of renewable energy. Some generate all energy onsite, while some may supplement with offsite energy as well. Some net-zero energy neighborhoods rely on the local electric grid for energy storage, and some were designed to stand alone and function “off grid.” Energy generation can include, but is not limited to, geothermal, solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, biomass, wind, and combined heat and power.

Net-zero energy neighborhoods require a lot of intentional, inclusive, and innovative planning and education but the long-term payoff can be huge. They not only reduce energy costs for inhabitants and city operators and improve health but significantly contribute to achieving local and state energy goals. A net-zero energy neighborhood can also impact energy consumption behavior even beyond its own geography. Lastly, they offer an opportunity for a city to be a leader, leave behind a legacy, and open business opportunities to the outside world.


Net-zero energy projects are not new. The U.S. Army has identified net-zero energy projects as a priority to address “significant threats to our energy and water supply requirements both home and abroad.” In Executive Order 13514, Barack Obama mandated that by 2015, 100 percent of all new federal buildings must be zero-net-energy by 2030. The Geos Net Zero Energy Neighborhood in suburban Denver, Colorado will generate 100 percent of its energy from geothermal wells and photovoltaic solar panels, and at 25.2 acres, will be the largest net-zero mixed-use urban development in the United States once complete.

The Saint Paul area is a prime location for net-zero energy neighborhood development. Since Minnesota has energy goals in place (including a new solar standard) and a climate with both a heating and cooling season, there are huge opportunities for deep energy savings. Currently, there are three urban sites that are primed for this investment: the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP) in Ramsey County, Beacon Bluff on the east side of Saint Paul (the former 3M site), and the former Ford assembly plant site in Highland Park. The City of Saint Paul has been working on developing the former Ford assembly site since 2007 and the mayor has stated strongly his interest in making the project net zero.


If you want more information on net-zero energy concepts, the U.S. Green Building Council of Minnesota is holding its annual Impact Conference on May 15, 2014 at the newly renovated and LEED-certified Union Depot in downtown Saint Paul. Mayor Chris Coleman and others will be speaking, highlighting the city’s impressive green building and energy-related accomplishments.

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