A zero-emissions commercial or residential building must be energy efficient, free of onsite emissions from energy use and powered solely from clean energy. The definition could help drastically reduce emissions in cities such as Los Angeles. 

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released part one of its national definition of a zero-emissions building as it seeks to decarbonize buildings throughout the U.S.

DOE officials say the definition is intended to provide industry guidance to support new and existing commercial and residential buildings’ move toward zero emissions across the entire sector. They say it creates a minimum criterion for public and private entities to adopt to ensure uniformity.

The announcement follows DOE’s recent blueprint to reduce U.S. building emissions by 65% by 2035 and 90% by 2050. The task is challenging, with nearly 130 million existing buildings in the U.S. and more than 40 million new homes and 60 billion square feet of commercial floorspace expected to be constructed between now and 2050. The existing buildings cost more than $400 billion yearly to heat, cool, light and power.

DOE officials say that part of the problem is inefficient windows, which force occupants to increase heating and cooling loads, thereby increasing carbon emissions. Jared Langevin and Eric Wilson, the authors of DOE’s carbon emissions reduction blueprint, explain that retrofitting commercial building envelope components could take more than a century to complete. They say that the retrofit rate must increase up to 25 times by 2030 to meet DOE’s 2050 plan.

Part one of DOE’s definition encompasses operational emissions from energy use. It sets criteria for determining that a building generates zero emissions from energy use in building operations. By definition, a zero-emissions building must be energy efficient, free of onsite emissions from energy use and powered solely from clean energy. Officials say that future parts of the definition could address emissions from embodied carbon (producing, transporting and installing and disposing of building materials).

The definition is not a regulatory standard or a certification. Officials say it is guidance that public and private entities could adopt to determine whether a building has zero emissions from operational energy use. The definition is also not a substitute for the green building and energy efficiency standards and certifications that public and private parties have developed.

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