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Building Decarbonization: The Race to Net Zero Starts Here

Updated: Aug 11, 2022

Written by: Stephanie Huang

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions created by the burning of fossil fuels and other anthropogenic influences are a major cause of climate change. Residential and commercial buildings account for nearly 29% of GHG emissions in the United States, while industrial facilities make up approximately 30% of domestic emissions. It is increasingly imperative to design, develop, and execute building decarbonization plans to achieve a more sustainable planet, improve operational costs and ultimately, the quality of life. Unsurprisingly, the race to net zero starts here.

Carbon neutrality, or net zero emission, means achieving (or approaching close to) 0% of GHG emissions by subtracting the production of carbon dioxide with its natural removal from the atmosphere, oceans, and sinks. Net zero carbon emission is defined as a system that does not emit carbon, so there is no need for capture or offset. Within the decade, the term "net zero" transitioned from the scientific community to common policy practice across private and public institutions. As a result, decarbonization efforts, already one of the most challenging goals to attain, became more achievable due to market adaptation.

There are currently three best practice decarbonization strategies:

  1. Renewable energy: The biggest contributor of CO2 emissions is the generation of electricity through the burning of coal and natural gas. By relying on renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower, we ensure that energy production is carbon-free and safe long-term while improving the living environment.

  2. Electrification: As the transition from fossil fuels to renewable advances, gas technologies are constantly being replaced with more efficient electric powered counterparts. Electrifying gas heaters, water pumps, stoves, and ovens can assist in decarbonizing homes and businesses.

  3. Energy efficiency: Minimizing wasted energy is key to decarbonization. Commercial and residential buildings can often maintain the same functionality; reduce their carbon footprints; and save on utility bills by implementing energy efficiency programs. Programs centering strategic management, facility improvements, professional assessments, and incentivized energy-reducing projects have reduced emissions by 17.3% and 11.4% since 2005.

These practices are fundamental to zero-energy buildings; buildings that only consume as much energy as they produce from renewable energy. According to the New Buildings Institute, the number of verified and emerging buildings has currently grown to over 700 in North America since the program began in 1997. With most of the net zero building located in California and Oregon, these municipalities are expanding their decarbonization goals in hopes to achieve city-wide net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

One verified net zero building is the North Face corporate facility located in Alameda, California. This project was part of the VF Outdoors Headquarters that occupies 14 acres of the Harbor Business Park, where the North Face comprises two of the four campus buildings. The building’s net zero energy achievement stems from two best practice methods: energy efficiency and on- and off-site renewable energy generation. The design included high performance HVAC; Daylighting and LED Lighting; Envelope Insulation; Plug Load management (or Power Management); and, lastly, Renewable Energy Generation and Storage (through the combination of offshore wind turbines and on-site solar panels). To evaluate the building’s energy performance, monitoring servers were created to annually report gas and water usage, electrical submetering, system energy generation, and energy efficiency audits. The energy metrics collected from these reports concluded that the site energy use index (EUI) was negative (16.8 building’s total EUI – 29.5 renewable energy production = - 12.7), which indicates a surplus of renewable energy generated within the North Face facility.

Looking ahead, CO2 emissions are forecasted to decrease by 2050 only if more drastic decarbonization tactics and management are applied by ALL governments. Now is the time to embrace and finish this race together!

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