April 14, 2015 at 5:00 am ET
One of the best things about not-for-profit, community-owned public power utilities is that its citizen-owners have a lot of choices when it comes to how their homes are powered. Many public power communities have strongly committed to energy resources that are more sustainable and sensitive to the environment. And some have invested in pilot programs that explore the idea of “net zero” buildings — buildings that produce as much or more energy than they consume on a net basis over the course of a year.
Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California has worked with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on a “Home of the Future” (HOF) demonstration program that is working to bring energy efficient and environmentally friendly homes to the Sacramento community. The goal of the HOF program is to build homes that reduce annual energy use and utility bills by 80 percent and to reduce demand to zero when energy is most needed in the community.
The City of Fort Collins, Colorado partners with the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster and Colorado State University (CSU) on the “FortZED” program, which is transforming the city’s downtown area and CSU’s campus into a net zero energy district. The two-square-mile area will increase renewable energy production, improve energy efficiency and manage peak energy usage, all in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Public power utilities work on net zero types of initiatives to maximize efficiency, cost-savings and sustainability, but the Department of Energy’s most recent proposed definition of a“zero energy building” ignores many of the fundamental issues associated with the concept of “net zero” and takes a misguided approach by focusing solely on the immediate premises of the building seeking the “zero energy” title.
For example, FortZED aims to be a net zero district, but the individual buildings within the district may not qualify for the DOE’s definition. Buildings that use energy created offsite (regardless of whether this energy is from a renewable or non-carbon-emitting source) are severely penalized. In some cases, this can push energy consumers away from renewable sources such as hydropower or community solar and towards fossil fuels to meet the DOE’s definition.
The DOE needs to take another look at its “zero energy” definition, keeping in mind how public power utilities think and work. We’re community-owned, with a community approach to sustainability. While it’s great to build a single house that is energy neutral, we need the federal government to think bigger in order to get better results.
Alex Hofmann is the American Public Power Association Director of Energy and Environmental Services