Rethinking How We Achieve Net Zero Carbon Buildings

This blog was written by Diane Levin, Vice President of Marketing and Product Development, at New York Power Authority.

New York is committed to 70% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030; a commitment to net zero buildings is an important construct for achieving this goal. While net zero has traditionally been associated with new building codes and standards, owners and communities are increasingly taking up the challenge with existing facilities. With the introduction of new technologies and business models, existing buildings are increasingly able to achieve net zero carbon status.

A traditional stacking order approach to achieving net zero is an excellent starting point but misses key opportunities. Increasingly NYPA sees that the sum is greater than the parts. Standalone decisions on operations and equipment choices may not yield the most economic results in the world where there’s the opportunity for customers to become prosumers – selling excess capacity into the grid. There’s an interplay between operations, building electrification, demand and energy charges, clean energy choices, and organizational goals. Taking a holistic look at an organization’s strategic and sustainability goals and linking that to an energy/sustainability master plan provides a blueprint for a new generation of cost-effective, net zero outcomes.

On a technical level, a net zero carbon strategy uses several energy levers. Generally, the approach NYPA takes is:

Recommissioning – Make sure that your equipment works for your facility. Two areas need to be addressed. First, equipment manufacturer specifications are designed to minimize operational risk and maximize the performance of the equipment and building. Reduce energy consumption without sacrificing operational performance by monitoring how equipment performs in your building. Second, over time, the best systems drift and need a refresh to ensure the setting and operations are optimized.

Grid-enabled energy efficiency upgrades – Incorporating energy efficiency considerations into end-of-life equipment decisions or taking action when the ROI meets an organizational threshold remains the most cost-effective way to reduce energy consumption. Adding sensors and two-way communication enables continuous commissioning and prepares for opportunities for participating in demand response or other grid management programs.

Building electrification – While the economics today are marginal from a pure energy cost point of view, fuel switching to electric energy opens the potential for net zero buildings through the purchase of RECs and the potential to tap into distributed energy resources.

Distributed energy resources – Solar, storage, and in some situations, green hydrogen offer organizations the opportunity to be powered by 100% renewable energy and achieve their net zero goals. In addition, local resources offer resiliency benefits that are highly valued with the new normal of volatile weather conditions.

EV infrastructure – While not part of a net zero building, those who are looking at net zero communities need to address the transportation sector. And many employees are looking for charging stations at their place of work. This requires incorporating EV charging stations and perhaps bundling them with storage to manage demand charges and to prepare for the long-term opportunity to sell back to the grid.

Bringing it all together

In the past, we have seen customers address these issues in a silo which has caused rework and lost opportunities. At a minimum level, sizing a solar system without regard to the anticipated load reductions to be gained from retro commissioning, new controls, or retrofits causes a mismatch. There’s a lot to be gained by taking a holistic approach that includes the creation of a “shadow bill” assessment that determines the impact of multiple technologies on energy and demand spend. An integrated clean energy master plan pulls all the pieces together. Understanding the organization’s goals, the operational requirements, various technology choices and optimizing based on pre-defined criteria such as time, economics, and the ability to reach net zero provides a blueprint for action.

Thoughtful and continuous management ensures that the original intentions are realized. This starts with the procurement process and project specifications through contract management and oversight. Once equipment is installed, net zero training for the building occupants and operations staff is critical. From setpoint management to staff education about plug-ins like small heaters, alignment is essential. Last, but not least, ongoing management on energy usage and organizational visibility is essential.

In summary, with today’s options, there are multiple ways for existing buildings to cost-effectively become net zero. Careful planning and management help organizations achieve net zero status in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.