In US, Energy Retrofit Leading Net-Zero

Originally published by: Daily Commercial NewsFebruary 9, 2012

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Now that green building practices have become widely accepted by the global architecture-engineering-construction industry, what comes next?

Studies predict that future innovation will be driven by the need to reduce energy use and cost, but the AEC industry will move at a different pace and in different directions, depending upon where you are.

Look for Europe to lead in zero energy buildings, while in North America, look for leadership, at least in the short term, in building energy-management systems (BEMS). The reasons are both practical and political.

A new report from Pike Research, an American firm specializing in market intelligence for the clean tech industry, tells us that that revenue from net-zero energy buildings was about $225 million in 2011, and will remain fairly flat for a few more years before exploding in 2020 to almost $690 billion, and growing to about $1.3 trillion by 2035.

For BEMS, another Pike study tells us that the global market was worth about $1.9 billion globally in 2011. That’s expected to increase to $6 billion by 2020.

BEMS is growing faster, sooner than net-zero because it represents the low-hanging fruit. It’s being installed by owners of existing buildings who want to lower their energy costs. Net-zero is growing more slowly right now because buildings meeting that standard generate at least as much energy as they consume, and have to be planned that way from the outset. There is so much involved with getting to net-zero that achieving it through retrofits would be tough.

Owners realize the long-term benefits of net-zero, but it’s a long time-line from initial concept to building occupancy. And they worry, too, about higher up-front costs that are incurred before the pay-back begins.

They may want to go to net-zero, but it’s probably going to take a legislative nudge for them to actually go in that direction.

That legislative nudge already exists in Europe, and project owners are responding. But Europeans have been more concerned and for a longer time, than we North Americans.

I wrote recently about the move to net-zero in Belgium’s Brussels capital region, and mentioned the city’s move to Passive standards right now for new public buildings. Not surprisingly, the city is already receiving proposals that far exceed the levels of energy efficiency needed for certification under LEED, and the move is guaranteed to continue because the use of the Passive standard is being extended to all new construction and retrofits in both public and private sectors by the beginning of 2015.

It goes further. By 2019, all new public buildings in the European Union will be required to come close to net-zero and all building construction will have to meet the standard by 2021.

When the Europeans talk about coming close to net-zero, they’re talking about the passive standards or something very close. Although the EU’s Energy Performance of Building Directive has been agreed upon, they’re still working on some of the fine print, and there is a lobby that wants the union to go all the way to net-zero. That’s because net-zero has, in the words of Pike Research analyst Eric Bloom, “emerged as the ‘holy grail’ in green building design.”

As for those higher up-front costs, a net-zero project in the United States came in recently at just six per cent above the cost of a conventional building. That’s not much, and given the continuing research in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, we can expect that system performance will improve. That will reduce costs.

People have been telling us for years now that efficiency is the key to reducing energy costs, that it’s cheaper to save a kilowatt than to generate a kilowatt. Stringent codes and standards will lead us inexorably toward net-zero.

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