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The utility’s role in zero energy and resiliency

At the past two Conference of Parties (COP 21 and 22), worldwide goals are being developed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, plan for extreme weather events, and pave the way for affordable and clean energy communities. Policymakers, city planners, architecture and design firms, and businesses are responding by pushing for ‘greener’ cities and buildings, and adopting stricter building codes to enhance local resiliency. As a result, the concept of Zero Energy (also known as Zero Net Energy, or ZNE) is starting to gain more traction with utility customers, and utilities need to take a closer look at how ZNE concepts help engage customers on energy and resiliency issues.

Why utilities need to keep an eye on ZNE

First, what is Zero Energy? The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) defines it as “an energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewables exported energy.” Several cities, states, and the federal government are starting to pave the way to ZNE. Leading utilities across the country are supporting these efforts by incentivizing ZNE through their new construction energy efficiency programs (for more, read my colleague’s recent blog The Trajectory to Net Zero Energy Buildings through Utility-Enhanced Energy Efficiency).

Zero Net Energy

Zero Net Energy

Here’s just a glimpse of what else is happening:

An increase in ZNE buildings will result in more distributed energy resources (DER) as more renewables and storage are added to the mix, creating a shift in the electric demand on the grid and affecting utilities’ revenue streams. Current initiatives, such as the ones listed above, could also influence other states and cities to adopt similar policies, so utilities need to be ready to respond, even if these policy changes haven’t happened in their territories.

The Utility’s role in ZNE: Building Resiliency via Storage and Energy Efficiency

With an aging generation and electrical grid infrastructure and more extreme weather-related events, zero net energy buildings can be key to providing distributed reliability and resiliency to both end-use customers and utilities. Energy storage, a key component of ZNE, at the building and/or grid can be one of the first steps toward resiliency. At the building-level, energy storage provides backup electricity when either building-connected renewables aren’t producing enough electricity, or when the grid isn’t available or can’t support the building’s demand. However, most ZNE buildings rely on the grid for energy storage.

At the grid-level, stored excess integrated renewable energy creates an additional energy reserve, acting as a backup when the grid otherwise can’t produce enough. Grid storage could be paired with renewables at the generation, transmission, or distribution levels, and helps improve the grid’s load factor, especially as renewables become more mainstream. Common types of generation-level energy storage include thermal (especially for solar power), and compressed air and hydrogen (typical for wind power). Pumped hydroelectric storage, flywheels, and batteries are more common for transmission and/or distribution-level energy storage (to learn more about battery storage in particular, you can read Davion Hill’s recent Answers to your energy storage questions: Batteries 101).

Utilities can also leverage energy efficiency in developing more resilient grids. Smart building controls and dynamic pricing help to shift demand to optimize grid operations and reliability. Innovative energy efficiency programs can serve as a stepping stone to help customers achieve ZNE. More communities, cities, and counties are developing energy plans and sustainability goals, and more design and construction firms responding to the Architecture 2030 challenge. Introducing a ZNE path to energy efficiency new construction programs can help guide the utility customers as they seek to meet their sustainability and energy goals.

A few utilities have already either started offering Zero Net Energy programs, or are paving the way to future ZNE programs by offering whole building or high performance incentives. Zero Net Energy programs can be used to encourage customers to target beyond high performance energy efficiency on their projects. Drawing from our experience with working with successful community-led ZNE efforts, DNV GL is excited to be developing a ZNE pilot for one Midwestern utility. Stay tuned for a future blog later this year on promoting zero energy in challenging climate zones!

In summary:

Utility customers are becoming more savvy and interested in local clean energy sources and ZNE buildings to meet their sustainability and resiliency goals. For utilities, new customer programs to reduce energy use at the “right times” can help to better control demand fluctuations and the grid’s load factor. Furthermore, offering ZNE incentives and technical assistance as part of energy efficiency programs can go a long way to engaging customers’ on their energy and sustainability goals and build goodwill. For utility customers, utility-sponsored energy efficiency programs provide much needed financial support as well as market education and experience with the benefits of ZNE buildings, thereby leading to more resilient buildings and communities.

Interested in learning more about how DNV GL can support your ZNE efforts around building and program design, energy storage, or renewables?

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