By SHILPA SANKARAN
Last month, we at the Net-Zero Energy Coalition (NZEC) published our second annual inventory of zero energy (ZE) residential buildings in the U.S. and Canada, titled “To Zero and Beyond: 2016 Residential Zero Energy Buildings Study.”
Prior to our first inventory report, existing data on residential zero energy was spotty. We believed it was crucial for us to quantify the current state and track progress in order to truly understand the reality of the zero energy movement.
So, how much has ZE homebuilding changed since the sun set on 2015? After our baseline inventory, that was the burning question. It turns out there is a large and rapidly growing ZE community out there across the continent, and a wealth of knowledge and insights embodied in those thousands of individuals and their projects. To access this knowledge via zero energy case studies from across the country, explore our online case study database. (If you want to submit a new project to the Net-Zero Energy Coalition, use this form.)
You can read our report to understand the details of the research. In this post, we explore further insights based on both our research and our first-hand experience in the industry (and what we really think).
The industry is risk-averse
Coming from the perspective of a consultant in many industry sectors, I have seen innovation diffusion ranging from slow (financial services) to light speed (high tech start-ups). But, even compared to the slower adopters of change, technology, and adaptation to market demands, I have not seen an industry more risk-averse than construction.
In 2007, when I entered into the industry, I charged ahead with zero energy, “offsite” (a.k.a. prefab) construction. Of course, we were met with great resistance then, and 10 years later the industry, sort of, is becoming more interested in this approach. I understand, firsthand, the perils of trying something new in this space. Margins are razor-thin, buyers are fickle, labor availability is unpredictable, material costs fluctuate, and economic cycles are a roller-coaster ride.
As such, NZEC found only a tiny percentage of the market – 8,203 residential units – are somewhere on the path to zero across the U.S. and Canada.
But, there are the pioneers. Unlike pioneers in the history books, these builders have found success after taking only small risks. Each one that comes next takes even less risk. We know how to get to zero in any climate zone for any type of home, so minimal R&D is required. Costs of high-performance materials and systems, and solar, are dropping. And the market is not only responding, but paying more.
These building pioneers have driven up zero energy construction by 33% in only one year. The number of projects has increased by 82% and projects in the pipeline for future zero energy comprise almost 30,000 units. And 95% of them didn’t do it because a buyer asked. They were built by multifamily developers and builders who just made the move.
These project teams are dedicated and inspiring for the movement. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you take a look at the DOE Tour of Zero website. Here you will find beautiful photos, videos, and stories of the builders, giving you a more personal understanding of their approaches. It will be clear that we don’t need to be afraid of zero anymore.
There has been progress
The first zero energy project I was involved with in 2008 had landmines across the board. Contractors didn’t understand how to install and seal ductwork. We had to hack together an air-source heat-pump water heater. We created our own energy monitoring system and software. Nobody knew what zero energy was. The pioneers now have the “secret” knowledge that none of these issues exist anymore. With new, affordable technologies entering the market every day, and a plethora of training tools for contractors, zero is easier than it has ever been.
Don’t forget, the market is changing. Sixty-two percent of homebuyers are either millennials or boomers. They do not want big homes. They can’t afford them and don’t have the time to spend maintaining them. They do care about health and indoor air quality. They do care about the environment for future generations and themselves. They really care about saving money on energy bills. Millennials, in particular, care about having the latest and the coolest. The pioneers know this and are building their businesses around these assumptions in order to bolster the future of their companies.
Some perceive governments as entities that slow change and that exist to create constraints, especially when it comes to policies and codes for construction. Based on our research, this perception is completely untrue when it comes to zero energy.
Those states and local governments that have simply created aspirational targets (California) as well as incentives and competitions (Massachusetts) have stimulated market movement and economic growth that has exploded their respective markets. Our report shows 104% growth in ZE in California in the last year and 128% growth in Massachusetts.
Governments have the power to create a snowball effect
This growth is no mistake. These two states also represent the #1 and #2 states (by units) in both our 2015 and 2016 inventories. In 2007, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) announced its goals to reach zero energy residential by 2020. In 2013, at our NZEC Summit in Irvine, California, builders and advocates from the state of Massachusetts came across members of the CPUC. They exchanged ideas and the Massachusetts contingent promptly went home to garner support for zero energy with the powers that be there. Soon after, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (MDOER) announced its Pathways to Zero Net Energy Program.
A tiny state has placed #2 in zero energy in North America. Clearly, government efforts have stimulated massive change in this sector and set a trajectory in motion that can only go in one direction.
Likewise, cities are making great strides in setting zero energy goals across the country. After the U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, 30 mayors joined a group of 1,000 public and corporate leaders that is making commitments regardless of federal action. Of the top 20 zero energy cities in our research, 18 have local programs or are located within states that have zero energy programs.
Cities are not just a unilateral power. They are prompted and supported by grass roots movements that compel change. The city of Berkeley, California, is such an example where grassroots community group efforts led to “Berkeley Deep Green Building,” an incentive-based path toward buildings that meet Berkeley’s environmental and greenhouse gas reduction goals, including zero energy.
Whether a builder or developer with a project, a design professional pushing the envelope with clients, or a citizen who wants to drive change, our research shows it is all possible. You, too, can start a zero energy movement. With the current state of energy inefficient construction, we desperately need it.
NZEC will continue to conduct our annual inventory and hopes to see more upward gains due to movement-makers. To include your project in our next inventory, you can submit basic information via NZEC’s online form. It only takes a few minutes, and will contribute greatly to our collective knowledge of the zero energy movement.
Shilpa Sankaran is the executive director of the Net-Zero Energy Coalition.
Get building science and energy efficiency advice, plus special offers, in your inbox.