By Derek Newberry, Advocacy Fellow

A formal definition can give a movement serious traction—and that day has come for net-zero buildings. 

In mid-September, the DOE released their definition for zero-energy buildings, campuses and communities. The purpose of this year-and-a-half long process was to create a definition that could be used universally across the building industry, to increase clarity across the industry and promote more zero-energy buildings. With a clear, accessible definition of net-zero, it will be easier than ever for communities, businesses and developers to work towards achieving this zero-emission standard.

It is through the critical mass created by the millions of Americans in the green-building industry that the DOE was moved to formally define “net-zero. According to, “A zero-energy building produces enough renewable energy to meet its own annual energy consumption requirements, thereby reducing the use of non-renewable energy in the building sector. This definition also applies to campuses, portfolios, and communities.”

Besides clarifying the net-zero goal across the industry, the DOE's publication provides measurement and implementation guidelines. These guidelines specifically explain how the definition can be used for building projects. Brendan Owens, Chief Engineer at USGBC National, emphasized the value of net-zero. “Reducing energy use in buildings must be a major part of the solution as we work to combat the escalating costs and impacts of climate change.”

Owens praised the DOE for this milestone in building a zero-emission society. “While we are making significant progress to save energy in buildings, this Zero Energy Building definition developed by DOE helps increase expectations and orient the buildings industry towards even greater achievements. USGBC applauds DOE's effort to define zero energy buildings and we look forward to continuing to champion the cause of building efficiency and renewable energy applications to meet the ambitious goals of this definition.”

Despite the clarity of the new DOE definition, there are challenges to be seen. While this is an important step, the next steps are not necessarily clear-cut; this DOE net-zero definition refers to source energy, while many zero-net-energy buildings use site energy as their basis for determining energy efficiency. 

Download the DOE's full report here to read about how these guidelines may apply to your green buildings.

Our Chapter's Advocacy committee will be reviewing the new DOE definition in-depth to see how it aligns with our goals of achieving net-zero in Massachusetts. Stay tuned for more updates!

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