Interview with Beyond Efficiency's Dan Johnson, Sustainability Architect
by Betsy Aaron
What is the best way to save energy in a large building? About 10 years ago, the concept of net zero energy building became mainstream, along with the hope that it would be the answer for reducing the fossil fuel consumption of all kinds of buildings.
Net zero is a concept where solar panels on a building produce enough energy to offset the building's annual energy consumption from the grid. This goal has been incorporated into California Energy Commission (CEC) legislation and policy.
However, Dan Johnson says, "Net zero has issues. If you do the math, it's not a scalable concept once we have more than about 25% of grid energy provided by solar panels.” There are code compliance, cost, and technological barriers to be overcome before net zero can be pushed further.
That is why Dan co-facilitated the workshop "Tall Housing ZNE Design Brainstorm" with Architect Ann Edminster at the semi-annual Zero Carbon Retreat in Arcata, California on July 28. Dan had been corresponding with conference organizer Sean Armstrong to share building efficiency ideas, and then Sean invited Dan to be a facilitator to pass along his ideas to a wider audience.
"In our workshop, we looked at net zero as a carbon reduction strategy for big residential buildings," Dan explained. Approximately 50 participants discussed current policies around net zero and other carbon-reduction solutions.
"A takeaway from the conference was a reminder that net zero energy in California policy is a means to an end, not necessarily a solution in itself," said Dan. "We want to work towards zero carbon buildings, and net zero energy is a way to reach that goal.” This is important to acknowledge, because we have a state policy that is an evolving compromise among many players in the energy business, and as a result, it can seem confusing or become distracting from what it is trying to achieve.
"One presenter talked about how they had just about reached net zero energy in their housing development for farm workers. In response, participants reminded the presenter that it may be more important to help the quality of life of the farm workers through other amenities than to fine-tune the net zero outcome considering how close they had already come," Dan explained.
Dan presented specifically on the work that Beyond Efficiency has done to electrify mid-rise housing—to take fossil fuels out of them. Construction cost, utility bills and carbon savings are all areas that can use more work. "The group provided feedback to help us improve our strategies," he said. "They suggested paying closer attention to all of the equipment on building electric meters so we can electrify heating without increasing the size of the electrical service. As we move to electric heat and water heating, we want also to add insulation and efficiency to keep the size of the electrical service from increasing."
A surprise that came out of the conference was the concept that with solar panels and batteries on a house, it is possible to consume power without affecting the electric grid outside a property. It raised questions about what our priorities should be, because things such as glass walls on a building may no longer have the overall impact they once had on the amount of grid energy needed to heat or cool the building. Priorities may be shifting, making fodder for further exploration and discussion.
According to Dan, we will consider all these ideas in our work at Beyond Efficiency. "It's great to participate with different members of the energy-efficiency industry to discuss the issues we face every day as sustainability experts," he said.