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What You Missed At The ZNE Retreat

Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director

It’s amazing how many energy efficiency conferences and workshops have surfaced recently. Sometimes it seems like the dissemination and sharing of EE information has become a standalone industry. These events are often are often sponsored by large corporate donors and may have hundreds of attendees. Frequently they are week-long events with multiple “tracks” of information to choose from. These conferences can be great sources of information a good way to get re-energized by new people and new ideas. The problem is that for many folks, taking a week out of their schedules to travel to a distant city and stay in a hotel and attend classes is not practical.

Not Your Typical Conference

Fortunately, there are a couple of much smaller conferences that primarily focus on sharing information, without the trade show sales floor and fancy gimmicks. The Redwood Energy Zero Net Energy Retreat, which takes place twice a year, is one of the best. The conference is hosted by Sean Armstrong of Redwood Energy, a leading authority on ZNE design for multi-family applications, and an EFCA Board member.

Last month, I attended the ZNE Retreat virtually, several of our Board members were there in-person. The content was outstanding, with two days of presentations and conversations presented both in-person and online, with a high level of participation from everyone.

The focus of the conference is how to achieve Zero Net Energy (ZNE) in buildings, which means designing or retrofitting structures so that they produce as much energy as they use. By 2020, all new construction in California is required to be ZNE.

Zero Net Energy Is Not Easy

Achieving this goal, however, won’t be easy. One of the challenges of ZNE is predicting how much energy a building will use before you build it. The obvious solution is to use energy models, which is great if they are accurate. There was a session on lessons learned and trends that show how collecting data and learning from previous projects can improve future results, and how this type of information can be used to improve the accuracy of modeling software. Measured results are where we need to focus if we truly want to achieve ZNE. Another presentation shared real-world results from a multi-family research project.

Technology Is Improving

Other presentations gave updates on the roles of different technologies on achieving ZNE goals, from the impact of lighting choices and to ZNE trends such as using water heaters for energy storage. One presenter showed how large-scale deployment of heat pumps for water heating in multi-family hi-rise projects could be more energy- and cost-efficient than boilers. Much of the conversation was based on how to bring ZNE, heat pumps, and electrification to scale, as time is not on our side.

Electrification is a Key Part of ZNE

No conversation about the future of energy would be complete without discussing the electrical grid, distribution and the importance of electrification. Presentations covered the benefits of microgrids as well as the efficiency, emissions, and safety benefits of electric appliances over gas. One presentation provided facts about why natural gas is not the answer, including the reality of distribution leaks and the impacts of methane on the ozone layer.

The Role of Incentives

There was some discussion of rebates and incentives to get the market moving. Sacramento’s Municipal Utility District (SMUD) presented information about their new electrification rebate program, which includes a $3,000 rebate to install a heat pump water heater. They also described how they have incorporated electrification into their existing home performance program (HPP). The latter is administrated by Efficiency First California and we are proud to be a part of the solution. SMUD’s electrification initiative represents a significant step as it’s the first time a utility has incentivized customers to change their energy source. For the majority of projects, this means getting rid of natural gas and using electricity.

There Are Challenges

Any effort to achieve true ZNE adoption must include a conversation about policy and the barriers to scale created by outdated regulations. This includes the issue of “fuel switching,” which typically means converting from natural gas to electricity. Intellectually, fuel switching makes perfect sense; unfortunately, our regulations are not keeping up with the changes in the industry. NRDC and the Sierra Club are working hard to push through new bills to support electrification and continue to work on removing restrictive, outdated policy, and we support their efforts. Speaking of barriers, Rick Chitwood proposed that perhaps the single largest barrier to achieving real energy savings is the poor quality of the work that is accepted HVAC and insulation industries. In order to meet the design specifications high-efficiency products, need to be installed properly, this is fundamental to achieving real savings and meeting ZNE goals.

Top Level Presentations

Perhaps the most anticipated presentation was from Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), who gave a presentation on “Integrative Design”. The concept is pretty simple: energy savings measures must be integrated into the design at every stage of the process. Amory shared several demonstration projects that showed how significant savings can be achieved in all types of buildings, from single-family homes to multiple story office buildings. Many of the design elements he includes add little to no cost and provide real and measurable savings. Implementing such elements just takes learning how to look at things from a new perspective.

ZNE And Decarbonization Go Hand In Hand

There also has to be a discussion of de-carbonization in regards to ZNE in California. It’s time to move away from fossil fuels and stop burning things to produce heat. Space heating and water heating in our buildings are significant producers of greenhouse gas emissions. We need to adopt new methods and technologies to move into a clean energy future and take advantage of the “greening” of our state’s electricity grid.

A Perspective From Board Member Debra Little

Finally, Ed Mazria of Architecture 2030 delivered what EFCA board member Debra Little described as “a peak-moment call to action” a grand finale to the conference.

Ed began his presentation by outlining the urgency of accelerating the adoption of codes to require zero carbon buildings, pointing to the rapid expansion of the global human population and the fact that since 1990 we’ve doubled our building floor space–and that we’re on track to do so again by 2060.

At the same time, Ed recognized that California is already a leader in the push for building decarbonization, with Palo Alto, Lancaster, Santa Monica and Marin County having already established decarbonization codes and Berkeley and Santa Rosa requesting them. He implored us to push immediately for even more progressive changes for the sake of the world, including a petition to leapfrog the Title 24 targets for zero energy for commercial buildings, pushing them forward from 2030 to 2022. Doing this, Ed said, would prompt other countries to follow our lead and make changes swiftly enough to fulfill the Paris Agreement’s intended carbon reductions. Given the leadership that California has already shown through initiatives such as SMUD’s new residential electrification incentive program, this call to further action was inspiring.

A final take from Ed Mazria’s presentation was that contractors and builders often say “just tell me what to do and I’ll do it and meet the standards”.

Good Data Is Important

This suggests that one of the main needs may still be for greater visibility of data, including project details, examples of what’s working in various climate zones with various architectural types and vintages that can be as quick to find as a Google search for local coffee shops. As Debra points out, tools such as HPXML (home performance data standards and exchange protocol) provide the capacity for these information networks to be built. Sharing information of what works, what doesn’t and why will ultimately be the key to scaling the looming mountain of energy efficiency retrofits to millions of existing homes.

Job Well Done

Overall, this conference was one of the best I have attended. The content was detailed and significant. The presenters are well-respected experts who share openly. The entire conference was presented with passion and respect for others and new ideas. It might not have the glamour and glitz of a fancy hotel in a destination location with a trade show floor filled with vendors fighting for your attention. If that’s what you like, there are plenty of offerings. If what you seek is real and valuable information presented by a group of passionate people, Redwood Energy’s ZNE Retreat is a conference you need to put on your calendar and make the time to participate in.

Charles Cormany
Executive Director
Efficiency First California

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