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Research Funding Helps Build Push for Zero-Net-Energy Buildings



California has some of the most progressive building standards in the nation, and if all goes as planned, beginning in 2020, most new residential buildings in the state will produce as much electricity as they consume over the course of a year, and most new commercial buildings will follow suit by 2030.

The concept, called zero-net energy (ZNE), is part of the state’s efforts to achieve its energy and climate goals. The energy used in buildings is the second largest contributor to the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. ZNE homes use a combination of innovative clean energy tools, strategies and technologies to minimize energy use and generate electricity.

In 2015, the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission developed the Zero-Net Energy Action Plan to help educate the housing industry and potential home buyers on the benefits of ZNE homes. The goal was to develop a level of enthusiasm that would create a robust, self-sustaining market for ZNE homes. While the number of ZNE homes in the state is still relatively small, efforts to build momentum continue.

The Energy Commission is addressing two main barriers to greater adoption – cost and suitability – through its Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) program, which funds clean energy research. The goal is to find the most technically feasible and cost-effective approaches to enhance energy efficiency.

One project underway is giving attic assemblies a closer look. In 2015, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory received a $1 million EPIC grant to evaluate the performance of low-cost, sealed and insulated high performance attics. The three-year study will compare the energy-savings, indoor air quality, and durability of different structures.

ZNE homes are also designed to help reduce impacts to the electric grid from the growing number of electronic devices found in homes and businesses.

Last year, the EPIC program funded eight projects designed to increase the efficiency of electrical devices and appliances, reduce standby energy use, improve power management, and monitor energy use in the home.

One project developed a mobile app called Dr. Power that can help consumers make better energy decisions at the plug. The app, designed by Los Altos-based Home Energy Analytics, looks at a users’ energy data, determines which appliances in the home are contributing to the base load, shows how much the base load is costing, and identifies the best ways to save. The Dr. Power app is available on the Apple and Android app stores.

There are many more ways for homes to become ZNE such as cool roofs that reflect more sunlight and reduce the absorption of heat, improved insulation and sealants to reduce heating and cooling needs, and intelligent software that continuously learns and adapts to manage residential energy use. With programs like EPIC, the home of tomorrow is becoming the home of today.

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Research & Development

California Energy Commission

The California Energy Commission is the state's primary energy policy and planning agency created by the Legislature in 1974.
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