Takeaways from 2021 Net Zero Building Conference & Expo

The release of last month’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report reinforces the immediate need to make significant cuts in carbon dioxide emissions – approximately 7.6% per year. With climate conditions consistently exceeding typical meteorological year conditions, the harmful effects of global warming are seen in record-breaking storms. However, there is still hope that a global effort can slow down the effects, but the effort must be collective, and must begin today.

The building industry accounts for about 40% of carbon emissions. At Henderson Engineers our mission is to be the firm that builds a better world, so building decarbonization is at the top of our priority list. This year’s Net Zero Building Conference & Expo reminded us that zero is achievable without breaking the bank. After three days of sessions, our designers took away strategies that will strengthen our approach towards all-electric buildings and to “design for abundance.” Below are a few takeaways

At the conference, the William Worthen Foundation released The Building Decarbonization Practice Guide, which is one of the most holistic and readable guides on how to decarbonize the built environment. It covers everything from the why to the how-to, and can be a good entry point for interested parties just getting into it. This will be a great resource as we continue to evolve our overall sustainability framework.

It’s key to have early conservations with stakeholders to show what values a net zero building can bring. This will increase awareness and hopefully a buy-in. Share how net zero can be achieved for little additional costs. Establish performance goals for all projects toward net zero waste, operational carbon, embodied carbon, and energy. At the end of each project, ask for measured performance data and be transparent about results.

Typical building load peaks during the day, and so does PV production. This causes a trough in energy demand. The solution is controllability, because there needs to be time-based matching of load. This allows the charging of batteries mid-day (periods of low carbon emissions) and discharging during peak periods (periods of high carbon emissions). Microgrids can also reduce electricity bills, avoid costly building and utility upgrades, and provide resiliency in natural disasters.

One of the biggest challenges we face is electrifying the water heating approach. One case study presented sewer heat recovery, where heat pumps recover heat from sewer systems prior to discharge, which could work effectively in buildings with large DHW loads (ex. multi-family).

Building modeling and analysis is evolving beyond annual volume-based metrics to study how buildings are operating at hourly and 15-minute intervals. This detailed level of analysis supports time-based matching to sync buildings’ loads with the ability of the grid to deliver low carbon intensity electricity. Data from this level of analysis can generate carbon heat maps to help project teams visually understand when carbon-free energy is being delivered and plan accordingly to meet net zero carbon goals. Google’s white paper 27/7 by 2030: Realizing a Carbon-free Future utilizes these carbon heat maps and presents their plan to achieve carbon-free energy.

It’s clear that we must electrify everything to achieve net zero carbon. Buildings designed with gas continue contributing to GHG emissions throughout the building’s lifetime. All-electric building design paves the way for building emissions to approach zero emissions as our electricity grid decarbonizes with the continued deployment of renewable energy sources. And there are health benefits to all-electric buildings as well! Electric appliances eliminate the release of air pollutants from gas equipment that are linked to various acute and chronic health effects, including respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.

The Net Zero Building Conference & Expo was valuable for our team, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to support clients on their path to net zero. If you’d like to discuss sustainable design further, reach out!

Written By
Brian Alessi

Sustainability Director | Principal


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