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Top 5 Ways ZNE Can Make Life More Comfortable During Global Weirding

2017 was a weird year as far as weather goes, hitting close to home for our DNV GL family. A colleague in Colorado evacuated due to flash flooding in July. A month later, our DNV GL Houston office employees were left without power for days after Hurricane Harvey passed through. Several colleagues evacuated and suffered flood damage to their homes. Then, the 7.1-magnitude earthquake in Mexico City temporarily closed our Mexico City office in September. And to top it off, the following month several of our Santa Rosa colleagues were affected by the major northern California fires in October. Many people lost homes, were left without power, and struggled with the resulting severe air pollution. When December rolled around, we were all asking one another, “What’s next?”

These are just some examples of the increase in extreme climate events. Many are referring to these events as “Global Weirding,” a term coined by Hunter Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute. In the second half of 2017 alone, we’ve seen six major hurricanes; more than 50,000 wildfires in the western US; record heat waves in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the US; and suffocating smog in India and Pakistan.

As the weather gets weirder, more people will be seeking refuge indoors. However, most buildings don’t stand up well to climate extremes, and even contribute to making the weather more extreme. They have poor indoor air quality and use a lot of energy to maintain comfortable interior temperatures.

So what kind of building will make life and work more comfortable, have a minimum impact on resources, and take maximum advantage of the technology that’s available? Read on to learn how zero net energy (ZNE) can be the answer to these questions.

1. You will have more reliable power

Zero net energy buildings have the advantage of on-site renewable energy generation when the grid fails, and can be designed to operate in blackout conditions. Added energy storage at the building-level helps ensure there is power when the renewables aren’t available, like at night if the building has solar PV. When circumstances make it impossible for on-site renewables (e.g. tall buildings, dense urban environments), off-site renewable generation may be used.

If you want to take it a step further, you can inspire your entire community to become more resilient and look at setting up a microgrid—essentially, a group of buildings or a neighborhood which produces its own energy, often operating completely disconnected from the grid. In fact, several utilities are already doing this, including SDGE and Ameren.

2. You’ll enjoy comfortable indoor temperatures (even if it’s 110˚F or -10˚F outside)

San Francisco experienced record-breaking heat of 106 degrees Fahrenheit last September. New England experienced an Arctic freeze in early November.

ZNE buildings by design have a tight envelope, which means they are less affected by outside temperature fluctuations. Advanced framing techniques allow for tighter envelopes, resulting in less air leakage (hot air leaking into the building if it’s very hot outside, and warm air leaking out of the building if it’s very cold outside). This also allows for smaller HVAC equipment, making the building more energy-efficient.

A bonus advantage of tight envelopes is better sound insulation. This is especially helpful if the building is located near a busy street or in a noisy environment.

3. You’ll be breathing cleaner air

According to the International Energy Agency, 18,000 people die each day from air pollution. Although primarily caused by burning fossil fuels for transportation, electricity generation, and heating, wildfires can also contribute to poor air quality. Air pollution can be a problem inside buildings too. Known as ‘sick building syndrome,’ poor indoor air quality resulting from chemical contaminants, mold, and bacteria can cause health issues. These issues then lead to decreased productivity, morale, and general well-being.

Although indoor air quality does not necessarily define ZNE buildings, many builders and designers are following sustainable building practices that focus on healthier indoor environments. Green building rating and certification systems such as LEED®, WELL Building Standard®, Green Globes, and the Living Building Challenge provide points and guidance on how to achieve good air quality.

For buildings in areas of high air pollution, some common green design practices may include non-operable windows, mechanical ventilation systems, air filters, and ongoing air quality monitoring. Indoor pollutants can be significantly reduced by careful selection of building materials, cleaning materials, and other potential pollutant sources.

4. Your building construction will be more resilient

With a surge in earthquakes and weather events, many building codes are becoming stricter and focusing more on resiliency. Some regions like California are also adding aggressive zero net energy goals to their buildings codes to help mitigate greenhouse gas effects.

Both ZNE and resilient construction require advanced design and construction practices. Therefore, it’s no surprise that several builders specializing in storm-resilient construction are adding zero net energy to their repertoire. This results in ultra-resilient buildings that can both structurally survive and remain functional after Category 5 hurricanes, floods, and major earthquakes.

5. You can charge your car at home/work and avoid the long gas lines 

Having lived through several Florida hurricanes and New England winter storms, I’ll always remember the long gas lines right before and after a storm. Fortunately, these gas lines may soon be a thing of the past. With adoption of electric vehicles (EV) predicted to pick up significantly, several initiatives across the nation are already planning the installation of charging stations. Many of these stations will be at buildings, ZNE or otherwise.

The advantage of having a charging station at a ZNE building is that you can still charge using the building’s on-site renewables, typically solar PV, even if the rest of the grid is down. Additionally, the car battery can act as a grid storage tool, helping stabilize the grid when the grid is otherwise running.

Of course, the scenario here is oversimplified. The industry is still figuring out how to manage the interactions of zero net energy buildings, electric vehicles, renewables, and the grid.

To further future-proof your building, you can include resilient design strategies in addition to ZNE. Tools like DNV GL’s B-READY help simplify the process by identifying climate risks and prioritizing resilience solutions. Organizations, local governments, communities, and leading utilities are starting to promote zero net energy, electric vehicles, microgrids, and resilience in their planning.

Strategies like zero net energy and resilience can keep us safe, healthy, and productive. More importantly, ZNE buildings minimize our impact on natural resources by combining deep energy efficiency with renewable energy to reduce our carbon footprint.

Contact us to see how we can help you take the next step towards a more comfortable and resilient future (zero net energy building design, utility pilots and programs, microgrid consulting).

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