By Brad Liljequist, International Living Future Institute (ILFI)

I first became interested in zero energy buildings in 2003. Several things pulled me into the concept, but probably the most compelling aspect was the scale of the change. At the time, I was managing a municipal green building program and we were struggling to convince developers to make relatively minor incremental changes such as using low-e windows or high-efficiency furnaces. The notion of zero energy was such a radical leap forward. And let’s face it, the thing that was really intriguing to me was that it was cool.

Zero energy, as an aspiration, as an on-the-ground reality, and as a climate solution movement, is at an interesting point in its history. Zero energy is gaining recognition with many more organizations and events addressing it as a topic. Many utilities are starting to look to a future that includes higher efficiency buildings with integrated photovoltaics and are trying to figure out the ramifications of shrinking base loads and peaking generation when the sun is out.

Even though at this point the International Living Future Institute has only 43 certified projects, things are clearly scaling  up  with nearly 400 registered (in progress) projects. From our unique position of engaging with high-profile players and evaluating projects for feasibility, we are able to see zero energy taking a big, next step.

As zero energy becomes more mainstream, it is a great time to think about what role zero energy has taken to date in an effort to inform its value proposition moving forward. Here are seven observations I’ve learned since zero energy buildings first piqued my interest nearly 15 years ago.

  1. Zero Energy Is a Key Element of an Integrated Design Philosophy

When zero energy was integrated into the Living Building Challenge in 2007, another design perspective was introduced. Buildings are like flowers, receiving all the energy they need from the sun, sharing energy in a reciprocal relationship with their biotic community and operating at the far reaches of efficiency. Zero energy was not just cool, it reflected a higher, deeper system of design thinking – one that is fundamentally based on nature and biomimicry.

  1. Zero Energy Brings People Together

In today’s complex times, perhaps the most compelling aspect of zero energy is represented by what I witnessed during the zHome open houses in 2012. I directed the development of this groundbreaking project – the first multifamily zero energy project in the United States. The team did a thorough job planning and marketing tours of the project, held over nine weekends. We ended up having 10,000 people visit the project for two deep-dive tours of the project.

It wasn’t the numbers, though, that I found most compelling. It was the diversity of backgrounds. Yes, we had many urbanites make the trek out to the suburbs, but we also had just as many visitors from areas east of the Cascades. Zero energy brings people from diverse cultural, political, and economic backgrounds together, because it addresses many shared concerns: money savings, energy independence, climate solutions, practicality, and innovative technology. In this way, zero energy has the power to transcend the typical narratives we so often hear today.

  1. Zero Energy Drives Efficiency

So what else is zero energy good for? A whole lot. Zero energy buildings provide a couple of key self-limiting mechanisms to drive efficiency. These elements force buildings to reduce their Energy Use Intensity (EUI) to match the available renewable generation on-site. Similarly, zero energy buildings have a self-reinforcing financial mechanism for efficient systems. A more efficient building results in the need for fewer renewables, which come with substantial cost.

In the past, higher solar costs reinforced this financial container; essentially almost anything you could dream up on the efficiency side would be less expensive per watt saved than renewable generation. But even as renewable prices drop, it is still more cost-effective to scour the alternative measures for efficiency gains.

  1. Zero Energy Connects the Building and Occupant

Another powerful aspect of zero energy is that it tunes users into the energy performance of the buildings in which they live and work. In zero energy buildings, systems are so efficient that, typically, the single largest loads are from the users themselves. Zero energy performance rests in the hands of the occupant, which is perhaps more effective than any other strategy. Related to this is zero energy’s reinforcement of self-identification with next-generation energy systems. Hosting a small power plant on your roof connects users with energy in a way that a power line does not.

  1. Zero Energy Makes the Grid More Efficient

The average line loss within the United States is five percent. Zero energy buildings (ZEB) place energy production at the point of use, resulting in little or no line loss when the ZEB is using onsite production. Any excess generation is used just a short distance from the site.

  1. Zero Energy Is Space Efficient

Roof-mounted solar also has lower impact on the environment than many larger utility scale renewables, which may form their own monoculture, especially when the installation sites are graded, graveled, and fenced. Roof space is usually an underused asset. Zero energy buildings turn that into valuable real estate.

  1. Zero Energy Supports Local Economies and Stable Investment

The purchase of building-mounted solar panels also supports the local economy. Most solar industry jobs are in installation, so zero energy buildings provide additional skilled labor jobs. Finally, for many people, real estate assets form the core, conservative component of their investment portfolio. Improving the quality of those assets by building them to be more durable and less expensive to operate reinforces their investment profile and overall value.

In this era of climate obfuscation, tangible, positive climate solutions are critical. While zero energy buildings and communities don’t get us all the way to the energy end-game, they take us way down the field. We’re grateful to be one of the key zero energy leaders worldwide and look forward to resolving the fossil fuel conundrum together.

Brad Liljequist is Director of Zero Energy at the International Living Future Institute. This article originally was published in Trim Tab, the International Living Future Institute’s magazine for transformational people and design.