Net Zero Energy isn't perfect, but it's still a pretty good idea

Bulliit Center solar hat
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ Bullitt Center roof

In my review of The Power of Zero, I complained that the concept of Net Zero Energy was a means to an end, rather than the end itself; that the goal should be energy efficiency, not net zero energy, because energy efficiency works for everyone- urban or suburban, high density or low. I have written before:

The dropping cost of solar power is a game-changer that will lead to significant reductions in CO2 emissions. But it is no substitute for good urban design that gets us out of our cars, denser housing types that can support walkable communities, and better buildings that use less energy in the first place.

On Facebook I was called a socialist for having such an attitude:

So many socialist 'green' authors are upset when their version of utopia (being urban high density, high rise buildings) is simply outperformed by the suburban home with the 'unfair' opportunity of having a roof. Their brains short circuit over the fact Net Zero is more meaningful, as their version of sustainability has been solely dependant on conserving energy & water.

Now it is true that I am an urban living bike riding utopian socialist, and there is much that one can argue about in that paragraph, there is truth in the fact that energy efficiency and conservation has always been a tough sell. But Net Zero is not so nebulous; and it may be really good marketing.

poer of zero© The power of zero

Lead author Brad Liljequist called to point out that Net Zero is a step on a continuum to getting totally off fossil fuels.

“The benefit of Net Zero is that it is driving people toward deep efficiency, it is driving people towards renewables”. He noted that it is a concept that people understand at a gut level, which I admit cannot be said for, say, the Passive House standard that puts a firm limit of so many watts per square meter per year period, a hard number to wrap one’s brain around without it short-circuiting. And for all my joking about being able to make a tent net zero energy if you have enough solar panels, the fact is that people are not doing that, they are building really efficient buildings.

Bullitt Center© Bulliitt Center electricity consumption

Liljequist pointed out in the Bullitt Center, designed to be net zero, the energy use was far lower than a conventional building (shown in red) and that they export far more energy than they buy from the utility (shown in blue). This kind of profile simply couldn’t happen without deep efficiency. When I complained that a utility is going to have a tough time surviving if it only sells power at night and in the winter, Brad noted that people are not all converting to Net Zero overnight, that new storage technologies like batteries and even rocks on rails are coming on stream that will help even this out, and that in a decade we will be looking at a very different picture, particularly if transportation gets electrified.

I also realized while we were talking that radical building efficiency, as architect Elrond Burrell calls it, makes our homes and buildings into a form of thermal battery; you don’t have to fire up the heat or the AC at peak times because the temperature in them doesn’t change that fast. So a really efficient building can trim the peaks and troughs of our energy production as effectively as any other kind of battery.

Elrond Burrell also pointed me to the work of Dr Steven Fawkes, who wrote 12 laws of energy efficiency. A few of them apply to this discussion:

1. Energy efficiency is boring and seriously uncool to most people most of the time.
2. Never talk about energy efficiency without mentioning the non-energy benefits which can be seriously cool.
3. Talk about energy productivity and not energy efficiency.
4. If you are supposed to be an energy journalist never headline a story about renewables with something about “energy efficiency”.
5. Never call energy efficiency a “no brainer” or “low hanging fruit”.

And my favourite:

An exciting energy or energy efficiency discovery in a lab somewhere is not the same as a viable technology, which is not the same as a commercial product, which is not the same as a successful product that has meaningful impact in the world.

Rooftop solar is having a meaningful impact in the world, and Net Zero Energy is exciting a lot of people, reducing energy consumption, and resulting in significant building efficiency. It may not be for everyone, everywhere, (and I still do not think it is the right target) but it is making a difference and we don't have to be doctrinaire.

The first commenter on the book review quoted an aphorism attributed to Voltaire: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I should get a tattoo of that.

Tags: Energy | Energy Efficiency


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