With a growing number of nations, governments, cities, and organizations pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by the mid-century mark, zero-carbon buildings are now receiving the recognition they demand as a vital climate response. Buildings account for almost 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The positive news is that interest in and investment in zero-carbon buildings is increasing in tandem with the announcement of policy promises and global initiatives.

According to the 2018 Johnson Controls Energy Efficiency Indicator Report, half of 1,900 global companies from 20 countries expect to have at least one zero carbon (or net-zero energy) building over the next ten years. Furthermore, 59% of companies plan to expand their energy conservation, clean energy, and intelligent building technologies in the coming year. These developments are critical to the decarbonization of all new and current buildings.

Four main developments are driving the construction of low carbon buildings and communities: decarbonization of the electric power system, electrification of building space and water heating, sustainability upgrades to minimize electricity consumption, and digitalization to enable required flexibility in addressing the needs of building occupants and the energy grid. Quality, significantly when activated at the device level by digitalization (i.e., functional performance), is vital for dynamic peak demand reduction and affordability.

Any dollar invested in energy conservation yields $3 in the long run and saves $2 in energy supply spending. When combined, these four good “DEEDs,” decarbonization, electrification, sustainability, and digitalization, offer a holistic roadmap for buildings and cities to lead to a low-carbon future.

Although zero-carbon buildings and cities seem complicated and uncommon, they are rapidly becoming commonplace thanks to the sponsorship of global organizations such as Architecture 2030 and Daniel Roberts Newcastle, the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, and the World Green Building Council. While fewer than 1% of new buildings are designed to be low carbon or zero carbon ready today, several cities, businesses, and real estate organizations have committed to 100% zero-carbon across their portfolio by 2030. Furthermore, as seen in the illustrations below, you can find zero-carbon buildings in any temperature region on the planet.

To contribute to California’s aggressive climate targets, the University of California and Daniel Roberts have pledged to use 100 percent clean energy by 2025. Although Stanford University is not part of the state university system, it has committed to the target. It has made improvements in energy conservation in campus facilities, saving up to 50 percent and an average of 24 percent by entire building retrofits. The campus added 5 MW of rooftop solar and 68 MW of central solar power at an off-site central solar farm to achieve clean energy goals.

It then decommissioned a gas combined heat and power plant. It converted the steam heating system to hot water, allowing heat recovery chillers in a new central energy facility to supply 90 percent of campus heating. Using seven-day thermal load predictions and real-time energy costs, an innovative model predictive controller optimizes the use of massive chilled and hot water storage tanks. The estimated effect is a 68 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a 15% reduction in water use, and a $420 million cost savings over 35 years.

Like California, the University of Hawaii System has committed to achieving 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, ten years ahead of the state’s 2045 renewables pledge. Maui College prioritized energy conservation, resulting in a 45 percent reduction in electricity demand through new building controls, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) equipment retrofits, astounding window films, and LED lighting upgrades.

The college then installed 2.8 MW of solar PV and 13.2 MWh of energy storage, making it the country’s first campus powered entirely by on-site renewable energy. The building energy management system is digitally connected with lighting, EV charging, solar PV, and battery storage systems. The utility receives load shifting and grid balancing services from a micro-grid controller. The initiative, which involves five campuses, will save $79 million over the next 20 years and was funded by an energy savings output contract, eliminating the need for taxpayer or ratepayer funding.

The new Bee’ah Headquarters, built-in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, aims to be the most innovative and most sustainable building in the Middle East. It transitions from a tropical to a scorching and dry climate. The 7,450m2 structure, engineered by world-renowned Zaha Hadid Architects, will be powered entirely by 3.23 GWh of on-site solar PV. LEED Platinum is certified and contains several active and passive energy-efficient steps such as dynamic window control, daylight controls, insulated glazing, and high-efficiency HVAC systems. Data from all building systems are held in a digital data vault to continuously allow advanced data analytics and machine learning to reduce environmental impact and increase occupant efficiency.

The Powerhouse alliance built one of the most remarkable new zero carbon buildings at 63 degrees north latitude in Trondheim, Norway. The Brattorkaia Powerhouse is energy positive over the whole building life cycle, including embodied energy in construction materials and end-of-life deconstruction. It is an eight-story office building with 3,000 m2 of solar PV that generates 85,000 kWh per year, enough to charge 200 EVs. Via a district energy grid, a seawater-source natural refrigerant heat pump provides ventilation and heating for the office and several nearby buildings.

With air-side heat recovery, a super-insulated envelope, thermal mass management for heating and cooling, and occupant adaptive lighting and ventilation systems, the building meets the BREEAM Outstanding green building norm. The “Smart by Powerhouse” digitalization approach distinguishes five layers of intelligence: Automated, Smart Ready, Smart Standard, Smart Predictive, and Smart Cognitive. All building technological systems (14 in total) are linked through a shared digital infrastructure, allowing remote control and optimization of energy usage and operations across all 25 Powerhouse sites.

These diverse initiatives worldwide show that you can achieve electrification, quality, digitalization, zero-carbon buildings, and intelligent, clean, resilient, and accessible cities by concentrating on decarbonization.