Oregon Pursues 'Net-Zero' as Standard for New Construction

Originally published by: Natural Resources Defense CouncilNovember 13, 2017

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Accelerating Efficiency in Oregon’s Built Environment (Executive Order No. 17-20)

Oregon’s goal, as laid out in the EO signed last week, is to achieve net-zero energy-ready buildings as standard practice across the state. The details are important, of course. “Net-zero energy” generally means that a building does not consume more energy than it generates through on-site, renewable energy. But “net zero” can be defined a variety of different ways, depending on whether the energy use is measured as source energy (i.e., the amount of raw fuel that’s required to operate the building) or the site energy (i.e., the amount of energy used to operate a building, as reflected on utility bills).

It’s important that Oregon’s Built Environment Working Group, responsible for implementing the EO, consider the full fuel cycle emissions of natural gas and electricity. Full fuel cycle refers to the emissions that come from extracting the natural resources and generating the energy, not just from the energy use inside the building. Doing so will account for the increasing share of renewable energy as a source in the state’s energy mix, which can help inform policies to reduce emissions starting at the grid.

Buildings and the energy they use account for more than 40 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Oregon remains committed to meeting the Paris Agreement targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and reducing building energy use is a key strategy. Governor Brown outlined a three-pronged approach that considers efficiency in state buildings, new construction, and existing buildings. It will keep the state moving toward the Paris goal while adding to the more than 40,000 existing efficiency-related jobs statewide and saving consumers and businesses money on their utility bills. Let’s take a closer look at the directives.

Efficiency leadership in state buildings

Oregon will lead by example with efficiency in its state buildings by implementing the following:

  • High-performance energy targets when remodeling state buildings
  • Carbon-neutral operations for new state buildings: The EO calls for full fuel cycle accounting of emissions when mandating that new state buildings will be carbon-neutral, which means that the source of energy (and its pollution) must be considered. This is important because the energy landscape is changing: the share of renewable electricity is growing. When a clean source of electricity is combined with super-efficient appliances, there is the opportunity for space and water heating and other electricity use that produces nearly zero-carbon emissions. It’s also important to fully account for the impact of fugitive emissions of natural gas from well to burner, as those emissions can significantly increase the climate impacts of natural gas. Full fuel-cycle emissions accounting is critical to achieve the deep decarbonization of buildings needed to mitigate climate disruption. Oregon will also consider the embodied carbon (the amount of carbon pollution produced during manufacturing and transportation) of building materials used in new state buildings.
  • Statewide plug load and other behavioral energy management strategies: The rapidly growing number of electric devices that plug into wall outlets (everything from electronics to mobile devices to appliances) is responsible for a large and ever-increasing share of energy use. Many devices are always on, even though they don’t need to be. A 2015 NRDC study found that these “always-on” devices were responsible for nearly a quarter of all home electricity use just to keep them on when not actively used, and many of the same plug loads are found in commercial and office buildings. A strategy to manage these loads, as well as the energy use that can be reduced through occupant behavior, could generate significant savings. Office buildings share many of the same plug loads as residential homes, with a larger share of desktop computers and other office equipment, as well as the server closets and rooms that lurk in the offices of most organizations.
  • Purchase of energy efficient and water efficient equipment
  • Analysis of lifecycle energy and water use costs and savings when considering upgrades

Enhanced energy efficiency in new construction

The EO includes numerous improvements to the state’s building energy code, which will strengthen both energy and water efficiency. Over the next five to six years, complying with the energy code will require the following:

  • Both residential and commercial structures must be ready for the installation of solar panels
  • Parking structures must be designed to include electric vehicle chargers
  • Residential buildings will be required to meet the 2017 U.S. Department of Energy Zero Energy Ready Standard, which specifies enhanced energy efficiency levels and design features that makes the home ready for photovoltaic solar panels.
  • The commercial energy code will be made more efficient
  • High-efficiency water fixtures are required in all new buildings by January 1, 2020, and onsite water reuse is required by 2025.
  •  Taken together, these requirements are among the strongest water efficiency initiatives of any state. For more, see this blog from my colleague Ed Osann, director of NRDC’s water efficiency project.   

Efficiency upgrades for existing buildings

The Energy Trust of Oregon runs a variety of programs that help upgrade the energy use of existing buildings. The EO enhances efforts to improve existing buildings in the following ways:

  • Expanding meter-based energy-saving pilot programs, including programs that pay consumers to save energy
  • Prioritization of efficiency in affordable housing, including expanded multifamily energy programs and resources for manufactured homes
  • Better data coordination
  • Evaluation of the state’s distributed energy resources, with an eye toward improving Oregon’s resiliency during, and recovery from, disaster situations

The provisions in this executive order cement Oregon’s place as a model for good energy efficiency policy.