Building Efficiency into our Systems

by Kristina Byrne on November 27, 2012

SunnydaleIncreasing building efficiency has many benefits, from improving air quality to increasing energy security.  However, higher initial capital investment and other barriers have prevented the widespread adoption of the best available technologies.  The National Renewable Energy Library (NREL) estimates that it is technologically feasible for 62% of commercial buildings to achieve net zero energy by 2025.  In spite of this, relatively few buildings and communities are on the pathway toward this goal.

The toolbox of energy efficiency policy is meant to reduce barriers, promote markets, and increase development and dissemination of new technologies, using building codes, appliance standards, labels and consumer information, incentives, and research and development.  A model for many ambitious efficiency standards, the state of California has used strict building codes and appliance standards to maintain a stable per-capita building-related energy demand since the 1970’s, which currently amounts to almost 50% less than the national average.  These policy measures have reduced pollution, equivalent to removing 37 million cars from the road, and saved residents an estimated $66 billion on electricity and natural gas bills.

Current building efficiency standards in California include targets of zero net energy for new residential developments by 2020 and commercial developments by 2030.  The California Energy Commission’s (CEC) Public Interest Energy Research program has been exploring the technical, financial, and regulatory feasibility of these goals.  Contracting the Cadmus Group’s recently acquired CTG, a leading sustainability consulting firm focused on the built environment, the CEC developed the first Zero Energy New Homes (ZENH) demonstration project.  Energy use in Solara, a 56-unit affordable housing complex in North San Diego County, was monitored and compared to a nearby affordable housing complex, revealing technical, political, and social ZENH challenges.  Photovoltaic cells produced more electricity than predicted, countering elevated rates of natural gas usage, which directed attention to a state law mandating hot water availability with requirements that undermined efficiency.  Net electricity use was lower than predicted; however, the study found large variation in energy consumption between units.  Another project, Sunnydale HOPE SF, the redevelopment of a San Francisco public housing project into 1700 units of mixed use housing, targeted energy reduction by promoting community involvement and environmental literacy among residents to minimize such variations and minimize overall energy consumption.

Both projects had similar energy reduction goals, the contrast in approaches highlights different leverage points for increasing efficiency , according to the community’s goals and priorities. Solara  The top-down, regulated efficiency measures in Solara, and the bottom-up behavioral changes, designed to integrate energy efficiency and sustainability into the local culture in Sunnydale are both part of the bigger picture of efficiency.

Effective projects require maneuvering the context of political, cultural, and economic realities that shape community goals and resource availability.  Cadmus’s projects range in scope from individual buildings to large federal programs, giving teams the ability to evaluate projects as parts of systems across a range of space and time scales.  At each scale, buildings fit into the larger community infrastructure where water, energy, and waste are cycled.  Zero net energy is more easily attained by leveraging different inputs and outputs in a collection of buildings, mimicking the cyclical approach of natural systems.  An ecologist’s perspective sees the built environment as an ecosystem, where waste from one process can be used as an input in another process, like district heating recycling waste heat from manufacturing to meet a residential need.

What other ways can communities and companies mimic natural systems?  Can you share examples?


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