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A New Net-Zero Certification Program

The U.S. Green Building Council will unveil its new program at Greenbuild later this month

The U.S. Green Building Council is due to roll out a new net zero certification program later this month. (Photo: Sam Beebe / CC / Flickr)

Much as NASA developed dozens of life-changing and useful inventions that benefited all as it raced to the moon, the U.S. Green Building Council may be the catalyst for new, cutting-edge technologies in the race to net zero buildings.

There is no doubt that the newly announced LEED net zero certification program is aspirational. LEED has always pushed market transformation. This new program does not mean that USGBC is abandoning its long-term goal of regenerative LEED building. Rather, this program has been characterized as a response to intense interest by some of the more activist LEED stakeholders who want to get there now and not wait for the marketplace.

USGBC announced recently that it will be unveiling the beta version of a new Net Zero Certification program at the Greenbuild conference later this month. Based on conversations with senior policy-making staffers at USGBC, I expect that this is what they plan to announce:

Net zero certification will be awarded to projects that demonstrate any or all of the following: net zero carbon emissions, net zero energy use, net zero water use, or net zero waste.

Net Zero Certified will be an enhancement or additional reward for LEED-certified buildings.

Projects will have to provide 12 months of performance data across any or all of these categories to GBCI through the LEED Online platform. Projects can see their carbon and resource impact in LEED Online in their analytics section (carbon/resource analytics).

Program details

Here are some of the certification details.

Net Zero Carbon Emissions Certification: Projects must achieve a carbon balance of zero. This will be calculated based on emissions produced from energy used plus emissions produced from transportation minus any offsets recognized by the LEED v4 EA category (both BD+C and O+M).

Net Zero Energy Use Certification: Projects must achieve a source energy use balance of zero. This will be calculated by energy generated on site plus any offsets recognized by the LEED v4 EA category (both BD+C and O+M) minus source energy consumed.

Net Zero Water Use Certification: Projects must achieve a potable water use balance of zero. This will be calculated by water re-used on site plus any gray water from a municipality or an external site minus potable water consumed.

Net Zero Waste Certification:  Any projects achieving GBCI’s TRUE Zero Waste certification at the Platinum level will be awarded Net Zero Waste Certification.

Much of the substantive detail can be already be gleaned from the existing program components to be piggybacked. And such is no doubt a further positive.

What is yet to be seen is how many project owners will pursue certification under this beta program (not to mention follow up with annual recertification). In an era when concern over legal liability for building claims is real — not only enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general, but also in consumer class action suits — it is likely unwise to make an unfounded claim that a building is net zero on energy use.

Defining net zero

USGBC says that its definition of net zero is in line with the WorldGBC defined term. “The WorldGBC definition of a net zero carbon building is a building that is highly energy efficient and fully powered from on-site and/or off-site renewable energy sources.”

On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Energy says, “Generally speaking, a zero energy building produces enough renewable energy to meet its own annual energy consumption requirements, thereby reducing the use of nonrenewable energy in the building sector.”

The Merriam-Webster definition (referenced by many building codes for definitions not appearing in the code) of net-zero is “resulting in neither a surplus nor a deficit of something specified when gains and losses are added together.”

And there are ‘real’ definitions in statute, including in California and in legislation pending in Washington D.C. A net-zero energy building described in the pending energy code in D.C. is “a highly energy-efficient building that produces onsite, or procures through the construction of new renewable energy generation, enough energy to meet or exceed the annual energy consumption of its operations.”

Even as some aspire to get to net zero energy (of course, trailblazers have already produced a limited number of net zero energy buildings), there is no single or widely accepted definition of what net zero is. And this is without delving into the philosophical distinctions between net zero site energy, net zero source energy, and net zero energy costs. The definitions above may be similar, but they are not the same.

And those distinctions do not address the marginal social cost of getting from “very low energy” to net zero, and whether this is sound environmental policy.

Building owners beware

Building owners pursuing net zero should proceed with caution and mitigate their risk. They should not make any such representations to consumers and be careful with word choice in the commercial arena. One possibility is to incorporate words similar to “designed to participate in GBCI Net Zero Energy Use Certification Program” together with the usual disclaimers (often in leases and other contracts) about what a green building is and is not.

Green buildings are the geoengineering solution to many of the environmental issues of the day. With this moonshot to net zero buildings, USGBC will now be a catalyst for new, cutting-edge technologies.


Stuart Kaplow is an attorney specializing in environmental law. This post originally appeared at his website, Green Building Law Update.


One Comment

  1. Jon_R | | #1

    > or procures through the construction of new renewable energy generation

    Sounds like D.C. go it right. Where renewable power is generated matters to the environment only in that for the same cost, you can do twice as much at the utility scale.

    IMO, the continued promotion of Net Zero Energy is a mistake. Time of use matters - so it's not an accurate proxy for anything anyone cares about (other than bragging rights). Is there some credit that encourages time shifting to less damaging times?

    Given the variety of harmful pollutants emitted by non-renewable power, I don't think Net Zero Carbon is the right metric either.

    How about a "Low Environmental Impact" metric?

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