February 23rd, 2017: What Sounds Like Nothing Is Really Something!

Net Zero. Sounds like … well, nothing. Nada, zip, zilch … you know, ZERO. But in the energy world, Net Zero has a very specific meaning and is becoming the new target for home-owners, institutional buildings and projects, and even entire communities.

What exactly is Net Zero? When a building/project/community reduces it energy needs as much as possible through a) the use of efficiency technology and b) through conserving behaviors, and then meets that remaining demand through the use of non-fossil fuel renewable energy obtained locally, then we can say that the building/project/community are Net Zero. Zero (or close to it) fossil fuel use; zero greenhouse gas emissions; and zero dependence on imported energy.

The benefits of moving toward and ultimately achieving Net Zero are clear. On the demand side, energy efficiency and energy conserving behaviors (such as carpooling or turning off lights when you leave a room) lower your bills and give you money to spend on other priorities. This lower energy demand also reduces pollution: both conventional pollution from the extraction, processing, transport and use of fossil fuels, and the greenhouse gases emitted when burning coal, oil, gas, and other fossil fuels.

And big benefits accrue on the supply side as well. Switching to local renewables lowers the carbon footprint of the user – it is a good thing to spew far less CO2 (carbon dioxide) and CH4 (methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. Additionally, creating this energy locally keeps energy costs in the local economy: this means more jobs and the economic benefits of money circulating over and over rather than being drained out to distant energy producers.

Some readers (with very good memories) may remember a column I di about two years ago on my neighbors Laura and Laurie who converted a home in the Queen City Park neighborhood into a Net Zero home through significant upgrades in energy efficiency and weatherization, plus the installation of a good size array of solar panels on their south facing roof. There are other Net Zero homes here in South Burlington and neighboring communities. But they are pretty rare. It takes a big up front investment to redo something that is already in place.

For proposed homes and buildings and projects and neighborhoods, before building starts is the perfect time to build in the best efficiency technology, design the project so that energy conserving behavior is convenient, and that the energy infrastructure is ready for renewable supply. If we can make Net Zero the bar for anything new coming into South Burlington, then we get a head start on the transition to lower energy use supplied by local renewable resources.

So let’s pause for a minute and think about what big project is coming up for South Burlington that might be a good start in making South Burlington a leader in Vermont as a Net Zero community? While we wouldn’t be the first (our neighbor Burlington has achieved Net Zero for its electricity use and Montpelier has recently chosen a design to make it a Net Zero City by 2030), we would definitely be in the vanguard of this money saving and climate protecting movement.

Sorry – got distracted for a minute. Have you thought of a good place to start yet? We on the Energy Committee thought that the City Center projects could be ideal. A lot of buildings, homes, storefronts, offices, and municipal services all in a relatively contained area. Construction has not yet started so smart energy planning could be built into both the demand and supply sides of the energy use equation. And a lot of environmental bang for the buck given the size of the project.

What a great time in the City’s history to have our local officials, City Staff, developers, energy advocates, utilities, energy contractors, and most importantly YOU, the residents and people who work in South Burlington, come together to figure out how to make City Center a showpiece and model for Vermont and indeed the whole country.