The new headquarters for biotech firm Exelixis in Alameda, Calif.,  designed by brick. and Peter Rumsey at PEI, will buy power from a city-owned utility that can provide 100% renewable energy.
Brick Architecture & Interiors The new headquarters for biotech firm Exelixis in Alameda, Calif., designed by brick. and Peter Rumsey at PEI, will buy power from a city-owned utility that can provide 100% renewable energy.

Scott Shell, FAIA, architect and principal at San Francisco-based EHDD, designed his first zero-energy building in 2000. He thought he was seeing the future constructed before his eyes. In a decade, he thought, every building will be made just like this. In the years since, he’s become an expert in high-performance, zero-energy buildings, which generate as much energy on-site as they use in a year. But his vision still hasn’t come to pass.

The number of zero-energy buildings that rely on on-site solar is still relatively small, compared with the need to cut emissions. The New Buildings Institute lists just a few hundred such structures in its database. Ever since Shell built his first such building, renewable power has exploded, with costs shrinking and production increasing at a rate previously thought to be impossible. The cost of solar power fell 82% in the last decade alone, and predictions call for an additional 17% drop in the next five years. That disconnect—accelerating green energy production, and just incremental growth in zero-energy buildings—represents a significant challenge to larger goals of eliminating carbon from the built environment.

“I put solar on my house because it makes economic sense and it’s a smart thing to do,” Shell says. “But for many of my projects, it doesn’t work. There just isn’t enough roof space or site area available to generate [all necessary energy] on-site.”

Evolving standards and practices around green building design and development have all led in one direction, spurring the architecture and construction industries to commit to reducing and eliminating carbon emissions. The Zero Code, developed and promoted by the group Architecture 2030, advocates for buildings that have no carbon footprint. It’s the most extreme example, the end point of such a movement. But in the pursuit of more-sustainable buildings, we’ve often asked buildings to do all the work themselves, to be both superior designs as well as masterpieces of sustainable engineering. What if, instead of asking for all our buildings to be unique, we pushed for a world where the energy systems we set up helped buildings reach their carbon reduction goals? Don’t ask one building to use zero net energy, an engineering challenge that only grows more difficult for larger structures; make sure as many buildings as possible can plug into clean, 100% renewable power.

“Going from zero energy to zero carbon shifts the conversation,” says Shell. “Doing these exceptional buildings was fun and I loved it. But we need every building to do this starting tomorrow.”

While the nation is far from having a fully renewable grid, a growing group of local energy organizations offer grassroots green power that can make Zero Code compliance more accessible and affordable. That’s part of the benefit of so-called Community Choice Aggregation, organizations that function as community-based utilities that allow customers to control their energy generation and reduce costs. Many CCAs contract with local renewable power producers and send energy via the existing grid to their clients, letting customers hook up to 100% renewable power for a small premium. They currently operate in seven states, mostly in California; in 2017, roughly 750 of them served 5 million customers.

These organizations, which first took shape in the late 1990s, have been riding the wave of improved renewable energy efficiency, along with other options for local, renewable power, such as community solar projects. They provide confidence that designers and developers are running their buildings on clean power and offer what Charles Eley, faia, an Architecture 2030 senior fellow, calls “additionality,” investment that supports the construction of new renewable generation facilities.

These organizations often offer more than just cheap power. Aimee Bailey, director of decarbonization and grid innovation programs for Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE), a California CCA, says her organization works closely with building owners and architects to help promote energy efficiency initiatives.

“The 13 cities and communities we serve formed us to address climate change, broadly,” she says. “We have a $6 million portfolio focused on building and transportation electrification. The community energy model enables us to make changes very rapidly.”

CCA, together with another growing trend, the increasing electrification of buildings, is creating the necessary infrastructure to scale sustainable building.

One of the reasons AIA decided to support the Zero Code, Eley says, was to push local governments to support these kinds of agreements and renewable energy options and help more make the investments SVCE has made in its community.

“So much of global growth in the next decade is going to be in urban areas—tall buildings located downtown or the fringes of downtown—and there simply isn’t enough roof space or parking lot space for those buildings to get to zero with on-site generation,” says Eley. “With the Zero Code, we’re trying to open up options for them to succeed.”

CCAs and similar options often make it easier, and more cost effective, to achieve significant carbon reduction and meet sustainability goals. California, for example, has gone so far as to mandate all new state buildings, as well as major renovations, meet the zero net energy standard starting in 2025, a requirement that has led the state’s Department of General Services to set up a variety of power scenarios, from on-site power to solar shares and CCAs.

Peter Rumsey, an engineer, energy consultant, and Stanford University lecturer, is helping the growing Bay Area biotech firm Exelixis design a new four-story headquarters in Alameda, Calif., working with the architects at brick. To design the new HQ to net zero standards—the massive office building would have to generate as much power as it uses—would have been cost prohibitive. Typically, Rumsey says, once a building hits four stories, it becomes exceptionally difficult to generate all its power on-site. Instead, the currently under-construction, all-electric workspace will buy electricity from Alameda Municipal Power, a city-owned utility that can provide 100% renewable energy.

While the project has succeeded because it could plug into a renewable municipal power supply, its design underscores a few important things that can be missed in debates around standards and practices, says Rumsey. Just because the building is zero carbon doesn’t mean it’s OK to gloss over energy efficiency, or skip on-site generation (there will be solar panels on the Exelixis rooftop). Think of buildings like Teslas, he says: They should already be extremely aerodynamic and energy efficient before being electrified. It’s cheaper and more sustainable to eliminate energy usage with efficiency measures than simply swap to renewables.

It’s also important to lessen the strain on the wider energy system. As the grid evolves toward more renewable use in the coming decades, it’ll face increased demand as more big users of power, especially building heating and transportation, become electrified. Buildings that use less electricity, and generate some when possible, relieve the strain during such a significant infrastructure evolution.

Expanding CCAs beyond the coastal, progressive areas where they tend to be clustered and establishing the legal structures that allow them to operate in more cities and states would make it easier to increase the number of zero-carbon buildings. To help encourage more-sustainable new construction, Shell and others have also been lobbying for more electrification ordinances in cities, which prohibit the use of fossil fuels in new buildings. Currently more than 40 California cities have such rules, and municipalities in other states, including Massachusetts, Colorado, and Washington, are considering similar policies.

What about the rest of the nation, which may not have the same progressive building and energy codes, or commitments to sustainable utilities? Rumsey says it’s important to ignore stereotypes and frame this concept through the lens of renewable power and its popularity across the nation. Rapid growth of wind turbines in Texas and Iowa, and solar power in Arizona, points to the possibility of setting up similar systems.

“Even if you aren’t blessed with the same amount of wind and solar resources as other areas, CCAs mean more local control, and make it easier to promote renewable options,” says SVCE’s Bailey. “It’s incremental. In some states, offering 40% clean power is a big win.”

The movement toward electrified buildings and renewable power generation is as much about cutting costs and instituting local control and resilience as it is about notions of sustainability and stewardship.

“This democratizes sustainability,” says Shell.