Massachusetts Releases Road Map to Zero-Energy
In recent years, state governments have begun to push ahead of
the Federal Government in efforts to limit energy use and put a lid
on carbon-dioxide emissions. California Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger signed legislation in 2008 intended to reduce the
state's carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, through a complex
effort that includes rules for automobile emissions and electricity
generation as well as a toughening of building codes. In Florida,
Governor Charlie Crist, who is friends with Schwarzenegger, has
pushed his legislature to pass a step-wise toughening of that
state's performance-based energy code for buildings, requiring new
buildings to use 15% less energy last year (compared with the 2007
code), to cut energy use 20% by 2010, and to slash total energy
consumption by 50% by 2019. (Check Builderonline for Ted
Cushman’s story, “Florida
Sets Tough Energy Code Targets.”)
Now, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is joining the parade
— and upping the ante. In March 2008, at the New England
Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) meeting in Boston, Patrick
appointed a task force to create a road map to zero-energy
buildings in Massachusetts, with what task force member Emile
Chin-Dickey calls an "unbelievably ambitious" goal: making all new
construction in the state zero net energy by 2030.
This month, the Massachusetts
Zero Net Energy Buildings Task Force delivered its product: a
56-page report titled “Getting
To Zero.” (This link is a 5.79MB PDF.) The report lays
out recommendations for achieving the zero-energy goal for
commercial buildings, for government buildings, and for homes.
This net zero-energy custom beach home in
Truro, Mass., was completed in 2008. Facing west across the Cape
Cod Bay, it incorporates solar panels and geothermal heat pumps to
produce more power than it consumes on an annual basis.
Carbon-based energy consumption is limited to propane cooking
equipment. For more information, see the ZeroEnergy Design
website. Photo Credit: Eric Roth
Emile Chin-Dickey is a principal with ZeroEnergy Design, an
architecture and energy consulting firm based in Charlestown, Mass.
Like much of his company's professional team, Chin-Dickey was a
member of Cornell University's "Solar Decathlon" team in 2005.
After earning college and advanced degrees, several team members
stayed together to found an architectural firm with a focus on
maximum energy-efficient design and construction. Says Chin-Dickey,
"Our working and professional relationships extend back to the very
beginning of the Cornell project. We had a chance to conduct a lot
of research, and also to get a feel for how the working
relationship and the design process should work. And it was through
that trial and error that we were able to develop the business
model and the design process that we have today, and to bring that
to the market after the competition ended."
Now that the team has gone pro, says Chin-Dickey, "We staff
architects and consulting engineers, and we can do custom
residential design, as well as the mechanical and energy design.
For our custom projects, we do both the architectural design and
the mechanical and energy design. But for some clients who already
have a design, or builders or developers who just want to make
their building more efficient, we will provide just the energy
design service — run an energy model and give them an idea of
which are the most cost-effective building improvements."
Emile Chin-Dickey cleans solar panels on his
team's Solar Decathlon house on the National Mall in Washington,
D.C., 2005. Chin-Dickey and other members of the team went on to
found ZeroEnergy Design in Boston, Mass. (www.zeroenergy.com). More photos
of the 2005 competition. Photo Credit: Stefano
Incremental improvements to new and existing buildings are well
within reach in Massachusetts, says Chin-Dickey — even for
conservative-minded builders who may be resistant to new ideas.
"We've worked with the more progressive builders, but we've also
worked with a lot of the guys in family-owned businesses that have
been doing it for several generations," he says, "and with
relatively minimal change to what they do, we're able to help them
get down to a HERS 70 pretty easily."
Getting all new homes to zero energy is a different story,
though. "That's going to be very difficult to achieve," says
Chin-Dickey, "and it's not going to be a single product or method
that gets us there. It's going to be a continuous effort, and
they've got to be coordinated." On the other hand, the zero-energy
new home is achievable now, and with existing technology —
but at a price. ZeroEnergy Design can point to at least one
example: the Truro, Massachusetts beach house they
designed that was completed in August, 2008 (shown above). Designed
as a vacation getaway for several generations, this house is able
to operate in a scaled-back mode with just a small master suite
occupied, or open up to host the whole extended family during major
get-togethers. Chin-Dickey says energy modeling predicts that the
house will produce as much energy on site as it consumes each year
— although he cautions, "We don't have a full year of
operational data yet to prove that."
Existing Homes Pose Biggest Challenge -- and Biggest
Paul Eldrenkamp, of Massachusetts remodeling firm Byggmeister, served as chair of
the Zero Energy task force's residential committee. According to
Eldrenkamp, showcase projects like the Truro house are one key to
making zero-energy houses practical as a mass-market product
— which is why the task force recommended that the state
create incentives for homebuyers and builders to plan and build
demonstration projects. But Eldrenkamp also points out that
changing only the way new homes are built can only accomplish a
limited amount of savings in the short run. "Deep energy retrofits"
of existing homes, he says, offer much greater opportunity. "In a
good year, there are 20,000 or 25,000 new housing starts in
Massachusetts — and we've got 2.2 million existing dwelling
Nationally, the average existing house scores about a 140 on the
HERS rating scale — 40% worse than a code-compliant new home.
But in Massachusetts, the task force estimated, the average
existing house scores at 150 or worse — meaning that just
bringing those houses down to today's new-construction baseline
could save a third of the energy the state now expends on operating
homes. Governor Patrick didn't instruct the task force to address
the issue of existing homes, but the group took their effort in
that direction anyway. "We had to," says Eldrenkamp. "It would have
been irresponsible, it would have been pointless, to miss the
This simple house scored a -4 HERS rating,
which means it produces more energy than it consumes. Built in
Townsend, Mass., the home is cited as a case study in the
“Getting To Zero” report. Source: www.mazneb.org
Zero energy in a new home is a tough target. For an old-house
retrofit, says Eldrenkamp, it's close to impossible. "At
Byggmeister, we have not been able to get close to zero net energy
with any of our retrofits. In the whole U.S., there may be a
handful of retrofits that got to zero net. People out in Boulder,
Colorado, have been able to do retrofits to zero net — but
they've got 300 days of sunlight."
On the other hand, stepwise energy improvements to an existing
house can get close enough to zero that on a neighborhood scale,
renewable energy production could theoretically make up the
difference. "You want to think in terms of zero net energy
neighborhoods, rather than zero net energy homes," Eldrenkamp
suggests. "Get each home down to a reasonable low load, and then
look for open space where you can put a solar array to handle part
of that neighborhood's load."
Even on a house-by-house level, progress may have to be
incremental. "You have to phase the energy upgrades on the houses,"
Eldrenkamp says. "When you replace the roof, you add insulation to
the roof plane. When you replace the siding, you add insulation to
the walls." The home will only approach zero energy load at the end
of that process, he explains.
The next step for policymakers, Eldrenkamp says, is to identify
the short-term milestones on the path to zero. "The most effective
tool we could have at the national level would be a very clear
target for what residential energy use could be," he explains. "If
Obama said, 'Okay, for reasons of national security, energy
independence, carbon stabilization, et cetera, this is our national
energy budget, and this percentage goes to residential' —
then the industry could take that and actually do something
meaningful with it. Right now, we don't have a specific target in
mind -- it's more sort of, 'Let's do some stuff and see what
happens.' But if they gave the remodeling industry a target and
said, 'Tell us the most cost-effective way to get to that target,'
then we could have an intelligent conversation. Right now we can't
have an intelligent conversation — because we don't know what
the goal is."