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Net Zero Over Time Puts Net Zero Energy Buildings Within Reach: BOMA 2019

June 24, 2019

Net zero energy status can seem like an impossible goal for existing buildings, but Zero Over Time, an incremental approach to net zero, can get you to the finish line faster than you think.


Net zero energy operation can seem unachievable for owners of existing buildings even though the financial and operational benefits are clear.

Zero Over Time, a gradual approach to achieving net zero, solves that problem. The program breaks down a building-wide deep energy retrofit into manageable pieces building owners can implement as time, money and replacement schedules allow.

“We really need to get moving on existing buildings. That’s what led us to develop the Zero Over Time concept,” explains Matt Jungclaus, a manager with Rocky Mountain Institute’s buildings practice who works on the organization’s Pathways to Zero initiative. Jungclaus and a panel of building energy experts introduced the concept to a packed room at the 2019 BOMA International Conference & Expo in Salt Lake City.

(Photo: Matt Jungclaus, a manager with Rocky Mountain Institute’s buildings practice, explains how buildings can achieve net zero energy status to a packed room at BOMA 2019. Credit: Janelle Penny)

“Deep energy retrofits are not insurmountable or something you can’t recover and they’re actually something you can capitalize on. But there’s a perception out there that they’re costly, complex, difficult to procure and too sophisticated for the average building manager to procure,” Jungclaus adds. “The reality is if you break this into smaller chunks, you can go a lot further.”

How Zero Over Time Works

The Zero Over Time Strategy relies on 6 key principles:

1. Set goals

2. Measure a baseline

3. Plan efficiency projects

4. Analyze capacity for renewables and storage

5. Procurement Track progress

The efficiency projects in Step 3 are driven by a trigger calendar, which lets building owners plan future upgrades and investments that will advance them toward their net zero energy goal. For example, lease turnover or renewal is a great time to address plug loads in green lease language or tenant fit-out projects.

Along the way, building owners make targeted upgrades and investments at pre-identified times.  

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“Let’s not retrofit an entire building tomorrow if we can’t afford it. Let’s say when the air handling unit is up for a replacement five years down the road, we’re going to spend the extra incremental cost but save a lot in the long term and get the building on the path to zero,” Jungclaus explains. “If you align all of these events and invest in renewables and storage, you can get to zero in about 20 years, which aligns with a lot of the goals we have out there.”

Zero Over Time Financing Options

You don’t have to take a large hit on your balance sheet to start implementing Zero Over Time, Jungclaus says. Explore alternative funding options that can help get your building on the path to zero without busting your budget. These could include:

  • Cost recovery in tenant leases
  • Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, which spreads out the upfront costs over the equipment’s lifetime by placing a lien on your property and requiring you to pay back the cost of the equipment through your property taxes
  • Refinance with a green mortgage
  • Energy Efficiency as a Service agreements—you put $0 down and the resulting energy savings pays for your upgrades
  • Power Purchase Agreements, in which you buy solar energy from a provider who maintains the solar array for you

Get Started With These 4 Tips

Kick off your journey to net zero energy with a four-pronged approach that capitalizes on “what nature gives you for free,” recommends Kevin Bates, founder of SHARP Development Company.

1. Create a high-performance envelope.

The envelope should be very tight so that conditioned air isn’t escaping and driving up your utility bills. This could include a roof insulated to at least R-40, walls insulated to at least R-20, electrochromic glass and attention to thermal breaks.

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2. Maximize thermal comfort and IAQ.

Set your building management system to work with indoor and outdoor sensors. This allows the building management system to utilize exposed thermal mass, operable windows and skylights to create the most comfortable and efficient indoor environment possible.

3. Reduce artificial light loads.

Reduce the artificial light loads by supplementing with natural light in the form of skylights and electrochromic glass.

4. Install photovoltaic arrays.

Photovoltaic arrays generate the power needed that remain after you’ve made the building ultra-efficient.

“The financial benefits aren’t just 10- to 15-year paybacks. They’re much more interesting than that,” adds Andy Bush, founder of Morgan Creek Ventures. “I think we’re really on the cusp of all of us having this be part of our business every day.”

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About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has been with BUILDINGS since 2010. She is a two-time FOLIO: Eddie award winner who aims to deliver practical, actionable content for building owners and facilities professionals.

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