"Net zero building" is a buzzy phrase in the design and construction world, but what is it? The most widely accepted definition is: generating enough energy on a building site to "zero out" the amount of energy the building uses. There are two steps to getting to zero. First, reduce the energy demand as much as possible so not as much needs to be produced. Then, add renewable energy generation to cover 100 percent of the demand. This is typically done through solar panels but could be any renewable energy source such as wind or hydro. 

Future of energy use

As part of the transition towards net zero and away from the old energy-consuming built environment, designers are taking inspiration from nature. This design style is called "biomimicry.” The idea is to create buildings that function more like living trees, harvesting all the energy and water they need to operate on their own site. As an example, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) partnered to form the Net Zero Plush Electrical Training Institute (NZP ETI) in Commerce, CA. The building is in the process of completing net zero energy modeling for this facility now. It is a national leader as a landmark net zero building that harvests more energy from the sun than it uses. It's also home to a micro grid, energy dashboard, electric vehicle charging stations, battery storage and massive solar panel array. 

The idea is to create buildings that function more like living trees, harvesting all the energy and water they need to operate on their own site.

Reducing energy at home

But people don’t need to design buildings to reduce energy demand. People at home can take simple steps to use less energy. Good home insulation keeps the inside air in and the outside air out, which greatly reduces your heating and cooling load. Replacing inefficient single pane windows with double or triple pane windows acts like insulation for your windows. Window coverings are also great for reducing heat loss in cold climates and reducing heat gain in warm climates. In warmer months, open windows can passively cool the house with a natural breeze. Thermostats don't need to be at 78 degrees in the winter or 65 degrees in the summer. Adjustments by even a few degrees can have a big impact on energy use. And finally, many people leave electronics plugged in which uses energy. Installing a "vampire switch" will eliminate phantom loads from standby power.