Is it possible to live in harmony with our environment while maintaining the comforts of 21st century living? Proponents of Zero Net Energy (ZNE) buildings and communities believe we can. The concept of living in structures where carbon emissions, construction costs and rates of energy consumption are balanced by efficient design and conscious practice is beginning to gain traction in a world concerned with global climate change.
Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be converted, shifted and measured. ZNE buildings attempt to achieve through various technologies and architectural techniques to engineer homes and businesses that produce or save as much energy as they use. Defining guidelines differ across Europe and North America (where most of this innovative development is taking place) but several key principles outlining the functions of are held in common.
Energy use- The amount of energy produced on site should be at least equal to the amount of energy needed by the building. This includes the energy required to transport electricity through transmission lines from source to final destination. Many ZNE’s strive to function off the main electrical grid, becoming completely self-sufficient and even sending power back into the system.
Emissions- ZNE’s strive to be carbon neutral, meaning any burning of fossil fuels involved in construction must be offset by the creation of renewable energy from the building. Some even go as far to count the carbon burned through commuting to and from the ZNE location as well as the “embodied energy”, or amount of fuel used to manufacture, distribute and dispose of the materials used.
Zero off-site energy use- To achieve a 100% ZNE rating, any purchased carbon offsets must come from renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, water or biogas.
How do ZNE’s go low? First, computer programs and traditional architectural principles are applied in the design phase to incorporate passive solar heating and natural conditioning, wind patterns, and the composition of earth beneath the building to reduce heating and cooling costs. Every detail is considered, from the overhang of a door to the location of a window in relation to the sun’s journey across the sky. Not only are the energy profiles of the materials and initial models taken into account, but the entire lifetime of the building. This means that each element must be durable, recyclable, and able to be neutralized by renewable energy. As with LEED certified buildings, ZNE locations have a wide array of energy-saving features. LED lights replace traditional fluorescent bulbs, high efficiency appliances monitor and save electricity, and natural heating and cooling, insulation, heat recycling aid in controlling indoor climate with the least amount of power possible.
Once a ZNE structure is up and running, it meets its electricity needs in a number of ways. Some of these strategies are used exclusively, while others are harnessed in combination. Solar cells, wind turbines, biofuels, and in some special locations, even microhyro or geothermal strategies are all sources of clean energy. Through a mix of conservation and renewable energy harvest, it is possible to function autonomously, although some ZNE communities still opt to connect themselves to the grid in order to draw power for those times when their demand exceeds production.
Whole Zero Energy neighborhoods are popping up around the United States and offering an exciting opportunity to live in a more sustainable fashion, creating jobs in the private sector, and aiding the fight to combat climate change and environmental degradation. Firms that specialize in green building such as Zeta and Zero Energy Design tout the long-term monetary savings of energy-conscious development and state of the art renovations. Their projects are inspired by the landscape, unique to each client, and ready to meet the demands of an energy-hungry and fuel strapped future. Just as in basketball, when it comes to winning the game in inspirational green design, it ain’t nothin’ but net.