Canada’s first zero-carbon building is propelling the energy transition

A new study from the University of Waterloo has highlighted how Canada’s first zero-carbon, net-positive energy building generates more energy than it consumes.

Usually, office buildings are not energy efficient, contributing to around a third of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Originally, researchers found that the zero-carbon building used more energy than predicted in its first nine months and failed to deliver on a commitment to produce enough solar energy for its operations.

However, through strict monitoring and implementing improvements, operations staff were able to reduce the building’s energy consumption by approximately 15% without compromising the comfort of people working in the space.

The study, Net-positive office commissioning and performance gap assessment: Empirical insights, is published in the journal Energy & Buildings.

What are the benefits of zero-carbon buildings?

These buildings can contribute to saving the planet and solving the climate emergency. Companies such as BREEAM have emerged to create more sustainable buildings that can avoid a rise in global warming.

Moreover, these buildings have several health benefits and could even help companies or households save on their energy bills by using renewable sources.

Zero-carbon buildings are critical to creating a more equitable, resilient, and healthy future. Their impact can be maximised through coordinated efforts to promote urban density, integrate buildings with the needs of electricity grids and communities, embed life-cycle approaches in the sector, and support innovation across the economy.

Implementing improvements to produce clean energy

“The case study demonstrates that all buildings can experience operational inefficiencies – including environmentally friendly models,” said Monika Mikhail, a graduate student in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development and the study’s lead researcher. “Implementing data-driven improvements to finetune operations can help sustainably designed buildings achieve their promise to create clean energy for society.”

Operations staff addressed the zero-carbon building’s performance gaps by upgrading its equipment, including the installation of pumps that could distribute heat more evenly throughout the building.

Moreover, they trialled new measures such as adjusting the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning schedules within the building. By doing so, they found that the energy used to perform those tasks decreased.

Now, the net-positive building is on track to achieve its target in 2022, producing 5% more clean energy than its consumption and adding it to the Ontario grid.

Going beyond net zero

Mikhail commented: “We have the technology and tools to adapt to climate change, but they alone are not enough. Leveraging the experience and expertise of building operations professionals and data analysis are critical to ensuring sustainability targets are met.”

The researchers aspire to reach other building owners in the future and encourage them to go beyond producing just their energy quota (net zero energy) and reach net-positive energy.

“The surplus clean energy can offset the embedded carbon from construction and thus achieve zero-carbon performance, an essential step toward achieving our national carbon targets,” explained Paul Parker, professor at the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development.

He concluded: “This effort will require strong collaboration between many stakeholder groups, including designers, operators, and funding bodies.”

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