The Beauty of Net-Zero Energy Infrastructure: Lessons from History, Actions Today, and Dreams for the Future

By Andrea Putman, Director of Corporate Partnerships, Second Nature
(This post originally appeared in the March 5, 2013 AASHE Bulletin)

As we connect the dots from ancient history to the distant future, we envision and hope for a clean and safe future for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. Sustainability professionals work diligently so that our posterity will look back at these days of the early 21st century and be pleased that their ancestors had wisdom, courage, tenacity, and imagination to overcome the huge obstacles of fast speeding and hard charging climate disruption. By honoring the ancient wisdom of our ancestors and working to protect the future occupants of our planet, our strong actions and passion may stand the tests of time. Although net-zero energy buildings currently represent a minuscule percentage of our nation’s infrastructure, they represent a hope for our descendants.

Daylighting and Passive Cooling and Heating

The Pantheon, the temple dedicated to all the gods of pagan Rome, connects us to the distant past. As the light streams in through the open oculus as it has for 2000 years, the architectural masterpiece promotes deep reflection and awe and may inspire us to work for a better future. Today, architects and engineers use daylighting extensively in high performance and green buildings. They take advantage of the daylighting’s well-documented benefits of reducing energy demand and associated costs; increasing occupants’ sense of well-being (as well as students’ test scores and retail sales).

The Research Support Facility (RSF), located on the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab campus in Golden, Colorado, is the largest net-zero energy (NZE) building in the world and widely considered to be the nation’s greenest building. Remarkably, RSF was built at no additional costs compared to traditional construction. This building has many cutting-edge technological features and also takes advantage of simple daylight. 100 percent of the workstations are daylit with the light entering the south­facing windows and reflecting to the ceiling and deep into the space with light­reflecting devices.

Stepping out of the summer sun and into the majestic European cathedrals and mosques, one feels the striking difference of broiling hot to refreshingly cool. RSF’s planners integrated this age-old lesson. Today, RSF has a labyrinth thermal storage that provides for additional capacity for passive heating and cooling. Massive concrete structures are located in the crawl space. They store thermal energy and act as a thermal battery. This reduces the building’s cooling load in summer by pre-cooling the ventilation air. In the winter, the labyrinth stores heat from the facility’s computers. Outside air is warmed by the sun shining down on transpired solar collectors and then delivered to the labyrinth.1

Higher Education Examples

A handful of higher education institutions are pushing the limits by constructing highly energy efficient and net-zero energy infrastructure and integrating these lessons into curricula. Stellar examples include Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA; North Shore Community College (NSCC) in Danvers, MA; and University of California, Davis.

Georgia Tech is constructing a cutting-edge Carbon Neutral Energy Solutions Laboratory with a goal of carbon neutral net zero site energy use. This is a game-changing feat in part because research universities’ laboratories have huge energy demands. Georgia Tech is working to achieve a new standard for sustainable design and is integrating passive energy technologies including extensive daylighting.2 NSCC’s Health Professions & Student Services Building is first state-owned NZE building in Massachusetts. Among its other features, this building uses natural ventilation and maximizes daylighting.3 Both institutions are integrated lesson from these buildings into curriculum, providing dynamic living labs, and inspiring students and their communities.

Students at colleges and universities throughout the country and world work diligently and collaboratively to design, construct, and monitor NZE homes. Since 2002, 112 collegiate teams have enthusiastically participated in the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. Teams of college students spend approximately two years designing and constructing homes that, among other criteria, are powered by the sun and produce as much or more energy than they consume. The Decathlon has expanded to include nearly 10,000 students. In addition to the Decathlon in the US, international competitions have been held in Europe and are planned in China in August 2013. Teams of students from US and are collaborating with students from around the world.4

We are at vitally important crossroads as we make decisions and take actions that will have long term impacts. We may dream about entire campuses that expand into communities to help restore our damaged ecosystem by not depending on fossil fuels to run our homes, offices, and schools. Although it may feel a bit fanciful to envision a net-zero energy community, University of California, Davis project at West Village, is the largest planned NZE community in the United States. This model employs a combination of aggressive energy efficiency and on-site renewable energy generation. As we marvel at NZE buildings, we can envision restorative buildings that provide energy back to the power grid to feed its voracious and growing appetite. We may begin to build communities that are not simply carbon neutral but rather “climate positive” as a mechanism to nourish and restore our earth. Let us gather ancient wisdom as we create a bright tomorrow and fortify the future.

http://www.nrel.gov/sustainable_nrel/pdfs/48943.pdf (accessed Feb. 27, 2013)
http://www.northshore.edu/sustainability/zneb (accessed Feb. 27, 2013)
http://www.solardecathlon.gov/about.html (accessed Feb. 27, 2013)
http://westvillage.ucdavis.edu/energy (accessed Feb. 27, 2013)