Are We Ready for Zero Carbon Buildings?

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015
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As December approaches, the eyes of the world will be on Paris and the United Nations Climate Conference, better known as COP21.

At this time climate change and the battle to reduce carbon emissions will be on the minds of all with an interest in a zero carbon future – which is practically everyone – although many will be more accepting of this goal than others.

Among the COP21 goals on the discussion table will be to have zero carbon impact buildings in as many countries as possible, as soon as possible. The figures recently released by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate in the UK revealing, which state that investing in low carbon cities could save up to $17 trillion by 2050, reinforce this goal.

But what are zero carbon buildings? According to the Australian Government’s YourHome website “‘carbon zero’, ‘carbon neutral’, ‘zero energy’ or ‘zero emission’ apply to buildings that use renewable energy sources on site to generate energy for their operation, so that over a year the net amount of energy generated on site equals the net amount of energy required by the building.”  As well as the operational carbon emissions, the definition of zero carbon buildings needs to take into account their embedded carbon, which can be addressed through the use of low embedded carbon materials and systems.

On the surface, you would think that achieving this goal would be relatively easy. We have the technology and we have the know-how to build zero carbon buildings. These buildings are a reality, although many are either personal or research projects where the owners or research teams have made willing investments.

A good Australian example is Josh’s House in Perth which was specifically designed to produce its own energy, have sustainable systems for water and recycling and sophisticated monitoring systems. The solar passive design of the house, which has no mechanical heating or cooling was also very successful, even despite the hot Perth summer. Overall the house is now considered carbon ‘positive’ (better than zero) as it uses only two-thirds of what it generates, so is a great design achievement.

Josh's House

Josh’s House is an example of a zero carbon building by Joel Barbitta
Image: D-Max Photography

In the US, the High Performance Buildings Database is research sponsored by the US Department of Energy and details many successful projects. The research objective is to improve building performance measuring methods by collecting data on various factors that affect a building’s performance, such as energy, materials, and land use. This is collected from around the world, so it is important data that many other research organisations and industry can tap into. Working together to ultimately close the loop on the guidelines and costs to achieve zero carbon buildings, both residential and commercial, are top of the list.

joshs house

This diagram shows the energy uses for Josh’s House vs the average weekly energy use of households in the local area (140Kwh).

However, the barriers to zero carbon buildings are very human: economics and attitude. A prime example is the recent United Kingdom government back flip on the zero-carbon policy launched in 2006 by the previous government, which sought to have all new homes zero carbon emitters by 2016. The initial task seemed straightforward – solar panels, energy efficiency and other renewable methods would bring balance to any emissions from heating, lighting and appliances; people would work together in special zero-carbon hubs to get builders into line; and tough new regulations would make it all happen. Simple? Unfortunately, no.

The reforms have gotten stuck in the mud and the emission reductions were reportedly not as high as anticipated. Then there was the increased cost to developers who resisted the regulation and the change. It has been a flop. They will need to go back to the drawing board and perhaps establish a more incentivised system to encourage homeowners to be proactive and shoulder more of the costs.

There are also challenges in Australia. Since 2009, when the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) introduced via the National Strategy on Energy Efficiency (NESEE) a framework to increase energy efficiency, there has still been resistance.

The framework involved increasing energy ratings to six stars for new residential buildings, increasing energy efficiency for new commercial buildings, and phasing in energy efficiency disclosure for residential buildings. The Building Code of Australia (BCA) was also updated in 2010 to accommodate these changes and which is now part of the National Construction Code. Overall, the new COAG initiative also stipulated about 50 different ways to improve built environment sustainability with other state, territory and local government rules added to this.

So it all began, but where are we now?  Although some progress has been made, the regulations could go much further in driving high performance, by requiring efficiency improvements in excess of 30 to 40 per cent, as is common in current systems. The mandatory disclosure of energy performance for residential buildings, which has unfortunately gone on the back burner, would be another way to encourage industry participation.

However all is not lost because as the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day. We will persevere and working together on an international as well as local level is all part of the process.

ZEBRA2020, which was launched in April 2014 in Vienna and will monitor the market uptake of low-energy buildings across Europe, will generate data and evidence for policy evaluation and optimisation. This information will add to the data required to find out what works and does not work, particularly at the large commercial and industrial building level.

Also more recently, and a project I was involved with, “The Energivie Manifesto: Buildings at the heart of energy transition” was launched. This is a document which targets six priority areas and 40 practical proposals which illustrate the building and construction industries global commitment to the success of COP21. Along with 21 other global leaders in the area of low carbon initiatives, we worked together to produce this comprehensive set of goals plus a road map towards a low carbon future for global cities. The challenge is the implementation and final delivery of the manifesto.

On all levels, zero carbon buildings are increasingly making economic sense. The recent figures from the UK’s Global Commission on the Economy and Climate that showed investing in low carbon cities could save up to $17 trillion globally by 2050 presented a strong business case for governments to reduce carbon emissions in the built environment. On the individual level, there are increasing market incentives to lower the operational carbon in homes, with higher electricity prices now in the order of 52 cents per Kilowatt hour (peak in Sydney on time-of day tariff). Improvements to technology are also making PV more cost effective for homeowners, with a return on investment often achieved within three to four years.

All in all, we know that zero carbon buildings are achievable. What is required is the commitment of governments, research, industry and individuals to work together to make this a global reality. A strong industry, government and research collaboration is needed to make this happen while ensuring Australian industry remains globally competitive.

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