Monday Morning Thoughts II: Time to Re-think Zero Net Energy?

Share:
West Village
West Village

Last week, UC Davis released a report tracking the West Village progress toward zero net energy. The report put the good face on it, stating that it “continues to work toward its goal of producing 100 percent of the energy it uses.”

The findings are not all that encouraging, however. The analysis from September 2013 to August 2014 found that the community “is 82 percent of its way toward reaching zero net energy, or ZNE.” Except for one problem – 82 percent is down from the previous finding of 87 percent, the report notes later on.

The reality is, “The primary difference between then and the new analysis is that formerly vacant retail and office space is now occupied.”

“The neighborhood is close to where we want it to be, but we still are not at the finish line,” said Sid England, Assistant Vice Chancellor of the UC Davis Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability. “I think we’re on track to get to 100 percent in the long-term. Along the way, we’ve learned some valuable lessons that we hope can inform other developments in California and across the country.”

The report notes: “Zero net energy is achieved when the community generates 100 percent of the energy it uses over the course of a full year. Neighborhoods and buildings are increasingly being designed and promoted as zero net energy, but whether they meet that goal can only be verified with real residents and businesses in place.

“West Village houses nearly 2,000 residents, mostly UC Davis students, as well as several UC Davis energy and transportation research centers and the Honda Smart Home. It serves as a living laboratory that explores how zero net energy design works in practice.

“Since the complex first opened in 2011, additional apartments have been built, office and retail spaces have filled, tenant energy behavior has been studied, and energy use has fluctuated.”

The problem, as a Sacramento Bee article has pointed out: “Developer and owner Carmel Partners said the 2,000 student residents had no incentive to conserve since utilities are included in the monthly rent, which ranges from $880 to $1,850.”

“When residents are not responsible for paying, they are less likely to be conscious about how much they are using,” Stephanie Martling, Vice President of Asset Management for the San Francisco-based Carmel Partners, told the Bee.

If that’s the problem it might be a relatively easy fix. The residents may soon be required to pay for electricity based on usage. They also started a conservation education effort.

“Sometimes we notice a particular unit might be 10 times higher than its neighbor,” Ms. Martling told the Bee. “Often times, these residents don’t even know they are using as much electricity because this is their first apartment.”

But will that be enough? After all, small units being energy inefficient might not yield enough cost to incentivize students to cut back on energy usage.

Gerry Braun, a Davis-based energy consultant, seems concerned that the data “undercuts those of us who say this is economically feasible.”

“The message from UC Davis is, ‘This is really tough; we’re working on it.’ You can’t use West Village as a successful demonstration to motivate others,” he told the Bee

The problem is worse than one might think. If UC Davis cannot get to ZNE, how are we going to expect private development to get there?

For instance, in the sustainability plan for Nishi, they trumpet their Sustainability Implementation Plan: “Design and construct high-performance buildings, public lighting, and onsite renewable energy systems that work towards achieving zero net energy (ZNE).”

As such they wish to “[s]erve as a model for low-carbon, climate-resilient development that also enhances the fiscal and equitable sustainability of the broader community.” And, “Strive for carbon neutral transportation through the use of innovative designs, infrastructure, technologies, and programs.”

But this is not a ZNE project. And if West Village can’t get there, it will be hard for any private development to get there.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Share:

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts

19 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts II: Time to Re-think Zero Net Energy?”

  1. Tia Will

    “I think we’re on track to get to 100 percent in the long-term. Along the way, we’ve learned some valuable lessons that we hope can inform other developments in California and across the country.”

    But this is not a ZNE project. And if West Village can’t get there, it will be hard for any private development to get there.”

    I think that this is far too pessimistic a view of an aspirational project. The danger I see in this kind of mind set is that of giving up on a good idea just because it has not been achieved as quickly as we would like or because it has been more difficult than we had anticipated. I see this as a cause to identify the underlying factors for under achievement, such as has been done by addressing the issue of who pays for the utilities and incorporating such findings into future projects. 

    A comparison that might help to inform future developments is rather than comparing the current 82% to the desired 100% and calling the ZNE a failure, a better approach might be to compare the 82 % to what existed in previous projects to see how much progress has been made, and to consider what further steps might move that number into the 90s with 100 as the ultimate goal.

    1. Gerry Braun

      A couple of clarifications:

      “If UC Davis cannot get to ZNE, how are we going to expect private development to get there?”

      In fact, a private developer, Carmel Partners, took on the task of implementing UCD’s West Village Energy Initiative, and they did, in my opinion, an outstanding job under difficult circumstances.

      Regarding the effect of grant money on project economics, it wasn’t a factor.  The grant money was entirely spent on parallel studies and demos, not on West Village energy infrastructure.

  2. Doby Fleeman

    Why not simply delink the utilities bill from the lumpsum rent?  Establish a baseline utilities allocation based on number of bedrooms and offer a credit or surcharge based on actual usage?

    1. Davis Progressive

      it appears they are contemplating that: “If that’s the problem it might be a relatively easy fix. The residents may soon be required to pay for electricity based on usage. They also started a conservation education effort.”

  3. Anon

    This is an interesting discussion, because it highlights a political problem.  I have heard in City Council meetings those who oppose growth constantly bring up the idea that every new development, whether it be commercial or residential, should be NZE as a tactic to defeat potential projects.  The goal of NZE is a laudable one, is certainly something to be strived for, many not be achievable in totality, but should not be used as a artificially created political floor to stifle any development.

    I would also remind everyone that part of the West Village model to achieve NZE includes its own biodigester, that takes all food scraps from the food purveyors on campus to transform this waste into energy, and other such innovations that may not be practical in normal commercial or residential development as of yet.  Nor should there be huge disappointment that the goal toward NZE has gone from 87% to 82% – West Village is in essence a pilot project and a work in progress.  It takes time and patience to develop any new technology/technique.

    1. Matt Williams

      Anon, while I understand the concept that you are laying out, and to a certain extent I agree with it, the majority of the people who have spoken loudly for NZE are citizens who are agnostic about growth.  Their comments are almost 100% driven by their broader beliefs about our community’s carbon footprint.

      1. Tia Will

        Matt

        As an individual who has spoken about growth from this perspective, I agree. Although I speak for no one else, my comments with regard to development center around two issues. Environment and safety. These were my issues regarding the Cannery which I opposed and around Nishi, which with appropriate traffic mitigation, I favor.

      2. Anon

        “...the majority of the people who have spoken loudly for NZE are citizens who are agnostic about growth…

        Hmmm… you are not hearing the same things I am in City Council chambers…

        1. Matt Williams

          I guess I am not. Mark Braly, Gerry Braun, Myself, Dick Bourne, Richard McCann, Chris Soderquist, Lorenzo Kristov, John Mott-Smith, Alan Pryor, Jacques Franco, Gene Wilson, Dean Newberry and many of the people associated with Cool Davis are all citizens who have spoken out publicly in support of NZE. To the best of my knowledge none of those over a dozen names match your description “. . . used as a artificially created political floor to stifle any development.” I can think of only one name that loosely fits your description . . . Rodney Robinson based on his comments to Council regarding the Hotel Conference Center. You appear to be indicating that there are others in addition to Rodney.

    2. Tia Will

      Anon

      other such innovations that may not be practical in normal commercial or residential development as of yet.”

      You mention one side of the political consideration ( those who want to prevent growth) but are neglecting to mention the other side of the political consideration, namely those who want to expedite growth and maximize their own  profit by claiming that anything else “will not pencil out” without sharing actual numbers on what “penciling out” really means. I don’t believe that we should question the motives of one side of the development debate, without also questioning the motives of the other side.

      On a slightly different point, the way that a new technology becomes economically viable is by many people and/or businesses choosing to utilize it. The way to advance is not to claim that it is not “practical” or “feasible” but rather its adoption by those who are able to do so thus boosting demand and ultimately making the improvements that will bring down the prices making them more practical and affordable for more members of the community.

  4. TrueBlueDevil

    There are several missing factors to this analysis.

    How much more did these buildings cost to build than standard buildings, what is the ROI, what would the cost differential be per resident, and how much did the monthly rent go up because of this fancy net zero construction?

  5. Alan Miller

    “Sometimes we notice a particular unit might be 10 times higher than its neighbor,”

    Also known as:  How to figure out who is growing marijuana in their closet.

  6. Alan Miller

    But this is not a ZNE project. And if West Village can’t get there, it will be hard for any private development to get there.

    There’s nothing magic about zero.  Better the whole community achieves a small reduction in energy use overall, than a couple of new developments include a fission reactor.

      1. hpierce

        Zero is not enough.  It only accounts for growth.  We need net energy PRODUCERS, not consumers, if we want to meet the carbon rollback that has been committed to.

        Zero is too low a bar.

  7. Tia Will

    hpierce

    Zero is too low a bar.”  Big smile !

    Ok, so why not just aim for continuous improvement ?  Remember that good old American competition thing so beloved by some ?  Why not aim for each new project to do better than the last using the information gained from previous efforts ? Is increasing profit the only metric that we can ever choose ? How about some creativity in goal setting ?

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for