Cost-benefit of zero net energy and renewables. ZNE certified and emerging projects increased by 74% in 2016, Santa Clara adds to code, documents cost-benefit

Originally published at by ILSR summer intern Matthew Douglas-May.

As energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies continue to improve both functionally and economically, Zero Net Energy (ZNE) buildings are spreading in communities around the country. The energy savings and environmental benefits of ZNE buildings, which produce as much energy using on-site renewables as they consume, are catching the attention of city leaders, regulators, and individuals nationwide.

In May 2017, Santa Clara, California, became the first city in the world to include ZNE requirements in its building code, requiring all new single-family residential construction to be ZNE. Cambridge, Massachusetts, plans to follow Santa Monica’s footsteps with goals to phase in ZNE in all new construction between 2020 and 2030 starting with commercial buildings and finishing with energy intensive laboratories. These moves follow statewide goals set in 2007 by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for all new residential construction to be ZNE by 2020 and all new commercial construction to be ZNE by 2030. Many other cities like Fort Collins, Colorado, and Austin, Texas, have also made ZNE plans and goals.

On the national level, the New Buildings Institute (NBI) estimates that the number of “ZNE certified and emerging projects” increased by 74% in 2016 alone.

Why Zero Net Energy?

The shift toward ZNE buildings is well underway, but what are the benefits and the costs it brings?

The energy drawn from the grid and consumed by a ZNE building, including electricity, natural gas, hot water, and others, is matched over the course of a year by electricity generation from on-site renewables, usually solar. In addition, energy efficiency measures reduce these buildings’ energy needs and costs. In the 41 states, four territories, and Washington, D.C. where building owners can sell solar energy back to the grid with net metering, ZNE buildings will essentially have no energy bill, or even receive net revenue from surplus solar generation, promising significant savings for renters, owners, and all building stakeholders. Still, the energy-efficient appliances, special building design, and solar panel installations make ZNE buildings more expensive upfront than non-ZNE buildings. The big question is, do overall ZNE savings offset the greater price of the buildings themselves?

The City of Santa Monica invested in a cost effectiveness analysis for its new ZNE building code, which shares some insights. The study uses two methods to examine ZNE energy savings against installation and maintenance costs for single-family homes, low-rise multifamily residences, and nonresidential buildings.

The first method of analysis uses Time Dependent Valuation (TDV), which takes into account the burden of peak demand in the cost analysis, and considers the savings for customers and society in the benefits analysis. The second method uses “customer retail rates for electricity and natural gas,” which only takes into account installation and maintenance, current retail prices for grid energy consumed, and solar energy sold back to the grid. Based on TDV, ZNE was cost effective for Santa Monica, delivering total savings that more than doubled the costs for all residential and commercial buildings. Santa Monica’s ZNE commercial buildings also proved cost-effective based on customer retail rates, while single-family homes and low-rise multifamily buildings recovered 90% of ZNE costs through energy savings over time. One important caveat noted in the study is that the most costly features of the ZNE design — the energy efficient heating, cooling, and insulation — did not generate as much energy savings because Santa Monica’s climate requires little heating or cooling. While this tempers results in Santa Monica, less temperate climates could greatly benefit from these products.

Constructing cost-effective ZNE buildings is very possible with today’s technologies at today’s prices. As solar installations and energy efficiency technology (as well as battery storage) continue to fall in price, and ZNE design improves, ZNE stands poised to become consistently cost effective.

Importantly, ZNE also offers a number of community benefits largely ignored in cost effectiveness studies. Making solar electricity generation a part of each building supports distributed generation and the economic benefits that come with it. Instead of utility companies extracting money from local economies with every energy bill, ZNE buildings, with no energy bill and an opportunity to support local solar and energy efficiency jobs, will keep those energy dollars local. In addition, ZNE buildings add value to the local housing and building market, and save community members money over time — cash they can spend elsewhere in the local economy.

On a broader scale, cities across the country are increasingly committing to clean energy goals, but often lack specific plans to achieve those goals. According to the US Energy Information Association, the residential and commercial sectors accounted for 40% of total energy consumption in the US in 2016. Adopting ZNE at a citywide level, or even just in municipal buildings, can serve as a defined step in a plan to achieve a city’s clean energy goals and rein in one of its biggest sources of energy consumption.

The (More Than Net Zero) Power of Building Codes

Updating building codes is one of the most certain ways to implement new changes and requirements into a city’s building sector, making ZNE building code requirements an obvious method for transitioning to ZNE. However, local governments’ ability to change city building codes depends on state building standards.

Many states either set a minimum building code standard that may be exceeded by higher city standards, or do not set a state standard at all, relying instead on local authority to implement building codes. In the 28 states with no state building code cap, it’s up to city government to pass a ZNE building code. The other 22 states set the minimum and maximum building standards for the state, which makes passing a ZNE building code a state level endeavor.

While changing state building standards often involves more coordination, planning, and time than changing city building codes, state level changes can and do happen.

California presents a good example of building code change at a state level, considering it was the first (and so far only) state to adopt ZNE goals. The CPUC and its regulated utilities released the California Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan in 2008, which outlines plans for raising statewide awareness of ZNE, educating industry professionals about ZNE, ensuring availability of the necessary technical tools, creating finance and affordability plans, readying the grid for ZNE, and aligning state policies, incentives, and codes — all before 2020 when the new ZNE building code is implemented.

No Code? No Problem

Because building codes only establish minimum requirements, buildings can be as energy efficient and solar friendly as possible, as long as they comply with state and city code. Even in states where state ZNE building codes may be years away, local builders, cities, and individuals can voluntarily adopt ZNE.

Since 2012, the Fort Zero Energy District (FortZED) project has tested the processes of transforming the 2.5-square-mile downtown district of Fort Collins, Colorado, into a ZNE district. With local funds of $5 million and a $6.3 million grant from the DOE, the FortZED project has reduced residential and city building energy use, helped install renewable energy systems, helped to reduce peak energy demand by 20%, and tested a number of other technologies providing information on the feasibility of microgrids and distributed energy generation. The FortZED project has run successfully for several years even though Fort Collins does not officially have a ZNE ordinance on the books.

Hundreds of single-building ZNE projects also exist in cities and states without ZNE goals or codes. The NBI library of ZNE case studies, presents a number of examples of ZNE residences, schools, libraries, and commercial buildings that have achieved ZNE without city building code requirements.

Folding ZNE into the Clean Energy Economy

With modern technology, ZNE buildings are now in a position to enter into the mainstream and set a new standard for energy consumption in the building sector. When states and cities commit to ZNE rules and goals, they propel the clean energy economy. In turn, community members can capture the savings and benefits of reduced energy consumption and distributed energy generation. Individual builders and community members can also lead the way to zero by adopting ZNE, one project at a time. As more cities look for innovative ways to curb energy use and promote renewable generation, ZNE deserves a close look. The path leads to zero.


The City’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment is currently developing a robust suite of resources for the residential building community that will be available on the website soon. For more information about ZNE or Santa Monica’s municipal code, visit:

Office of Sustainability and the Environment (

California Public Utilities Commission (

California Building Standards Commission (

From Santa Clara Cost Benefit Analysis

Santa Clara’s study found packages of energy efficiency measures to be cost effective for the single family, low-rise multifamily, and nonresidential prototypes, as shown below in Table 1, Table 2, and Table 3. Additionally, TRC found an Energy Design Rating less than or equal to zero to be cost effective for residential buildings (Table 1 and Table 2). Thus, TRC recommends that Santa Monica implement a Reach Code ordinance to exceed the 2016 Title 24 Standards for these building types.

improving envelope and HVAC characteristics. Thus, while the measures achieve a high TDV compliance percentage, the site energy savings and therefore the energy bill savings are minimal. Second, the consumer cost effectiveness uses NEM rates to value exported excess PV electricity generation. Using the current NEM rates and the natural gas costs that are not offset by the PV export, the net benefit to the consumer is lower than the cost of installing the ZNE package.

More cost-benefit info, this time on renewables

January 11th, 2018 by   Clean Technica

Renewable energy has historically been seen as an alternative to burning fossil fuels like coal and petroleum products for consumable energy. However, we have come to learn that far more than the core reasons for pursuing renewable energy, there are plenty of other benefits of clean, renewable energy. It has become increasingly clear that renewable energy is just better than fossil fuels — for people and the environment.

Better Jobs

As CNNCleanTechnica, and others have reported, solar employment grew 17x fasterthan the whole US economy in 2016. Together, solar and wind energy jobs grew 12x faster than the economy as a whole.

Approximately 260,000 people are employed in solar jobs in the US as of 2017, while over 100,000 work in the wind industry. They tend to be jobs people like, because they perceive them as being good for society and the planet. They are skilled jobs, so they also pay fairly well. Obviously, they are also much safer than working in the coal or petroleum industries. Coal and oil workers are exposed to harmful chemicals which sometimes make them ill or very ill later in life. Some even die prematurely from such exposure, like coal workers from lung diseases. The costs of treating ill and/or dying workers are extremely high, and those workers can no longer work so they can’t provide for themselves or their families.

Solar and wind power jobs don’t expose workers to toxic chemicals, explosions, oil fires, mine collapses and so forth. Additionally the coal and petroleum industries don’t exactly have stellar track records when it comes to preventing injuries or taking care of injured or sick workers.

Additionally, these jobs are not dead-end, low-paying, or unfulfilling ones. It is also expected that far more new jobs will be added in the clean energy sector in the coming decades since these are the most competitive options for new electricity generation capacity.

Hi-tech jobs receive quite a bit of press, particularly ones in Silicon Valley, but cleantech jobs for some reason don’t get as much attention, even though they are arguably more important for human health and that of our planet.

It’s very beneficial to the American economy that hundreds of thousands work in clean energy like solar and wind power, but in China, there are reportedly well over 2 million people working in solar power.

So, it is possible for millions of people to be employed in solar power, even though the conventional view might be that solar power is sort of a ‘fringe’ technology.

Air Pollution

wind energyClean energy sources don’t produce copious amounts of toxic air pollution, like fossil fuels do.

A huge number of premature deaths occur in the United States and in other countries simply due to excessive air pollution. “Tens of thousands of Americans die every year from old-fashioned air pollution, generated by electric power plants that burn fossil fuels. Estimates vary, but between 7,500 and 52,000 people in the United States meet early deaths because of small particles resulting from power plant emissions.”

The number of premature deaths due to air pollution worldwide is in the millions.

Somehow, the climate change deniers never mention the enormous human toll resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.

The cost to society in terms of health problems, death, and pollution of using coal in the US has been estimated in the hundreds of billions.

Children are very vulnerable to all forms of air pollution, and hundreds of thousands die each year globally. “570,000 children under 5 years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke.”

Of course, the burning of fossil fuels is a primary contributor to the production of air pollution.

Further, pollution contributes directly to climate change, which is increasing temperatures in some areas, resulting in more plant growth and greater pollen production. More pollen means more asthma for children, and other age groups. However, the plant growth isn’t normally the type we want — with agriculture threatened the world over from increasing drought, heat, and flooding.

The US Trade Deficit

Tens of billions of dollars of our yearly trade deficit are linked with imported oil in the United States. The trade deficit overall is hundreds of billions each year, so oil makes up a somewhat sizeable portion of the total. Our reliance on foreign oil contributes to the trade deficit, which in turn puts downward pressure on the value of American dollars. If we don’t decrease our over-reliance on imported oil, it will be hard for us to reduce our trade deficit and increase the value of the American dollar. Carrying too much debt and having a suppressed dollar value hurt our national economy.

Solar power could provide enough electricity for the whole United States. We could also install enough solar power, wind power, and energy storage to eventually provide electricity to tens of millions of EVs, if not the whole American vehicle fleet. Energy independence at last?

At that point, there would be no need to send colossal amounts of American dollars overseas for foreign oil. By investing in clean energy, we will be protecting the economic future of America and making our country much healthier.

The story is similar for countries around the world that aren’t oil giants.



Oil and Terrorism

Would there have been an Al Qaeda without Americans buying millions and millions of barrels of Saudi oil? Steve Yetiv, an Old Dominion University professor of political science, wrote in an opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor, “Oil has helped fuel and motivate them, while globalization has allowed them to exploit that fuel to do things that otherwise would be more difficult and costly.” He was referencing how Al Qaeda has benefited by the purchasing of Middle Eastern oil. Some of that oil is purchased by us Americans.

Before 9/11, we might have been shocked to find out that at times we have been paying for gasoline that resulted in money going to terrorists who want to damage our country.

Post 9/11, any adult could see the connection between our over-reliance on foreign oil and some terrorists groups. However, Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States in 1996, so the very hostile intention was activated before many of us knew what was going on. In fact, hostilities between the US and some terrorists like Al Qaeda and ISIS have lasted over 20 years.

Over 7,000 American soldiers died in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Over a trillion dollars has been spent by the United States on such campaigns due to the conflict. Saudi Arabia is one of the top petroleum sources for the United States, and the consequences have been very severe.

Would transitioning to more solar and wind power solve all these complicated geopolitical problems?

No, but they would at least help us withdraw our resources — human, material, and financial — to better apply them within our own country and not put them at such risk. Adding much more solar, wind, electric vehicles, and energy storage would put us on a much more sensible and less damaging path.

Germany decided to embrace clean, renewable energy and has made a great deal of progress. In the process, this European nation has emerged as a new technology leader and set an example to the world. That could have been the United States, but we have lagged behind. Germany has been able to take in billions by exporting its surplus electricity.

Clean energy installations might even be increasing tourism in some parts of Germany.

Oil Costs

If the price of one barrel of oil is $61 in 2018, what will it be 10 or 20 years? Will it double, triple, or increase even more? Why not invest in alternative energy so we can avoid increasing oil prices which may become extremely high? Why be held captive to market fluctuations when we can strike out on our own energy-independence path and avoid sending huge amounts of money to places where there are people who hate us and want to destroy us?

It is already true that renewables are saving American companies billions of dollars each year.

Investing and Cleantech

Investing in clean energy doesn’t only begin to address and solve various environmental and public health problems. It also helps create new technologies that can further reduce the usage of fossil fuels. “France’s Engie, for example, is investing €1bn over three years on new energy technologies that could strike at the heart of fossil fuels.”

Of course, there are many more benefits and scores of examples of how renewable energy benefits the grid. Entire books are devoted to the subject of renewable energy, but for one online article, there isn’t enough space to cover them all. Suffice to say, there will also be new benefits created as renewable energy expands around the world and gets smarter — ones that we might not have anticipated yet.

Image Credit: Sbharris, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0