A $1 Trillion New Housing Forecast: Smart Buildings Help Reduce Global Warming

The number of buildings in the United States built to meet standards of “net zero” energy—where energy consumption is equal to the amount of energy expended in producing energy—has more than doubled since the…

A $1 Trillion New Housing Forecast: Smart Buildings Help Reduce Global Warming

The number of buildings in the United States built to meet standards of “net zero” energy—where energy consumption is equal to the amount of energy expended in producing energy—has more than doubled since the early 2000s, the National Wildlife Federation estimates. The increase in homes built under net zero standards is happening alongside growing concern over climate change, and it is especially notable for its impact on energy use. A net zero building can have a substantial impact on energy use, and when built with recycled material, an environmentally friendly one can cost significantly less than a typical new home.

Net zero houses typically use around one-fifth of the energy that traditional homes use. And they use less energy for cooking and heating. To achieve net zero energy in a modern building, the heat and power come from energy harvested by the building’s own systems and alternative fuels, mainly solar or wind. Solar panels and photovoltaic panels are also part of the systems that produce heat and light inside.

The National Wildlife Federation’s study finds more net zero homes being built than the 811 homes certified under the National Energy Conservation Code in 2011, the most recent year for which estimates are available. Construction of net zero homes is growing at a rate of 10.8 percent a year, driven by the need for affordable housing in a changing economy. Many of the homes are built in the Atlanta and Denver areas and in the Nashville and San Diego metropolitan areas. Other areas likely to be home to more net zero homes are California, Massachusetts, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.

Millions of people on the Gulf Coast who have been forced to leave their homes, and to find new ones elsewhere are unlikely to be among those who will find affordable affordable housing in cities, which have high costs and relatively few affordable homes. In many of these locations, most of the current housing is owned by older residents, who tend to be older than those who could afford to buy or rent in the new housing stock.

I grew up in the rural South and the Pacific Northwest, and those two regions have not enjoyed nearly the growth of the South and Northwest in net zero homes. Northern cities, like Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Philadelphia, have relatively few net zero homes.

There are two types of new homes that can generate more of their own energy than they use: “direct energy conservation” homes and “net zero family homes.”

Direct energy conservation homes use less energy by using more fuel-efficient technologies, more geothermal systems, insulation, smart wiring, smarter heating, lighting, and appliances, and more electrical storage.

Net zero family homes contain several innovations and design features, such as efficient windows, energy recovery ventilators, PV solar panels, and an aboveground solid rock hot water system.

But there are drawbacks to all of these solutions. Energy efficiency measures, such as heat pumps, heat pumps, and geothermal heat pumps, can involve significant upfront investments in appliances, appliances, and installation. There are also environmental considerations, especially with the older types of technologies that people tend to use. But energy efficiency measures are still a better overall choice than building another fossil fuel-based, non-renewable resource—such as wind and solar—into the local supply chain.

Net zero homes have large potential long-term impacts on the environment. As one of the many benefits of being built with recycled materials, renewable energy sources, and fuel cells, for example, net zero buildings can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are the main source of climate change.

There are many benefits to building a net zero home. In addition to reducing energy consumption, it reduces a building’s global warming potential and therefore helps moderate climate change.

As net zero becomes more prominent, solar and wind power will become less important for meeting our energy needs. Modern distributed solar and wind power require huge investments. And the costs of renewable energy are growing, as are the economic and political risks. We must also continue our push to reduce emissions from existing buildings.

Jona Lindholm is a researcher with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The views expressed here are his own.

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