The groundswell of public support for rallies like the Forward On Climate march on Washington, DC and growing movements like Idle No More in Canada point to a fundamental realization: we can no longer externalize the monumental costs of an economy driven by fossil fuels. Across the globe, individuals and communities are refusing to accept habitat loss, mountaintop removal, environmental and socioeconomic sacrifice zones, air pollution, water and soil contamination, hazardous waste, an overstressed infrastructure, rising seas, a melting Arctic, increasingly devastating storms and droughts, corporate greed and political corruption as necessary tradeoffs for “cheap”, convenient energy.
“The time for talk is over. It’s time for action.” It’s a common refrain of environmental organizations like 350.org and Sierra Club, leaders of the movement urging US President Barack Obama to veto the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.
It’s true, we need bold political action to facilitate a rapid and comprehensive transition to a clean energy economy, but there’s another integral element. In addition to leadership from our governments, we need a shared vision and understanding when it comes to the creation of a smart, clean, reliable energy system. Like many burgeoning “green” industries, the green energy sector is awash in confusing language, conflicting definitions and unverified claims aimed at a vague notion of sustainability. While net zero energy buildings are emerging as a benchmark for true sustainability, the term “net zero energy” tends to mean something different to almost every project or company that attempts to define it. The arithmatic behind the name seems basic enough:
Energy Generated – Energy Used = 0+
Then again, what constitutes energy generated? Do carbon offsets “count”, or does the energy need to be generated on site? What about Renewable Energy Certificates? What is the duration of building performance measured? Is the data even based on performance or is it based on anticipated generation and use? There is little concensus about these important questions and the veracity of net zero energy claims, which makes following the lead of pioneering projects tougher than it should be.
The International Living Future Institute agrees with the message of the #forwardonclimate movement. We’re losing every major environmental battle and there’s no time left for rhetoric or equivocation when it comes to the broadscale adoption of renewable energy. That’s why we launched our Net Zero Energy Building Certification program in 2011. Through this certification, we offer a straightforward definition of net zero energy: One hundred percent of a project’s energy needs must be supplied by on-site renewable energy on a net annual basis.
Our goal in offering this certification is to assemble a roster of exemplary projects and offer place-based, proven strategies for designing and operating a net zero energy building. Projects that can verify their net zero claims with a year’s worth of performance data are as rare as the they are critical to spurring action in the building market. To paraphrase 350.org leader Bill McKibben in a recent Trim Tab interview, “The green building movement has done some great things, like showing just how elegant a net-zero house can be. But the real fight is to make this stuff part of the building code, not just a remarkable building here and there”. We’re putting out the call to those remarkable buildings (and their project teams) around the world. Stand up and be recognized. Let’s make the leap from “here and there” to clean, renewable, resilient energy for buildings everywhere. We can’t afford not to.