Net-Zero, Really?

by Catherine Haug

Solar-powered home, Boulder CO

The May 10, 2009 Denver Post published an article titled “Houses move off grid, into mainstream,” by Jason Blevins. It leads with a photo of a solar-powered home, with the following caption

“This net-zero home in Boulder uses solar power and produces all of its own energy. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post )”

Is something missing here?  What is meant (and understood) by net-zero? ESP is soliciting your comments at the bottom of this page.  We want to have a real conversation about “Net-Zero.”

From the article:

“We are seeing more and more really highly efficient off-the-grid homes on a mainstream scale in Colorado more than we ever have before,” said Deb Kleinman , executive director of Colorado’s chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. “People are watching Colorado, and net-zero will soon become the new goal to push for.”

A net-zero house or community uses only power generated from solar, wind and underground geothermal systems. It generates all the electricity it uses, ending dependence on natural-gas or coal-powered electricity.

In attempt to define “net-zero,” the article adds:

“Many of today’s greenest builders are quick to point out that a few solar panels on a traditionally built, gas-connected home is not green and certainly not net-zero. …

Sustainable residents are the final key to a net-zero home. Just because solar panels and wind turbines generate your electricity doesn’t mean you can flood your trees in outdoor light all night or heat a pool year round.”

ESP welcomes your comments in answer to the question: “What’s missing in this picture?”  Here are some thoughts to consider, to get the conversation rolling:

  • How green is “green?”
  • What is sustainable?  Are there limits?
  • What are the implications for the future of our planet and human civilization?
  • Will this become a class struggle of “green” haves vs  have-nots?  And if so, what can we do about it?
  • Where does one draw the line between “fluff” and “essential” use of limited resources?

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  • Type your comment, and click “Submit Comment.”
  • It will then await moderation by the site’s editors (the ESP core team) before it is published for all to see.
  • If you login as a “user” on this site, you will have the option to edit your comment, after it has been accepted.  The edit feature gives you some formatting options.  But you do not need to login to add your comment.

3 Responses to “Net-Zero, Really?”

  1. Fran Wade says:

    Net-zero sounds great, but just how accurate is the term? Once the solar panels or wind generators are installed and operational, they may well replace fossil fuel sources of energy-at least until they need repair. How much energy is consumed in manufacture and transport, prior to them becoming viable? It is good people are choosing alternative energy sources, but we must acknowledge that these choices come at a price to the finite resources left on the planet. Let’s hope that the energy ultimately produced will be used conservatively, not frivilously to continue the unsustainable life style that has brought us to the brink.

  2. Catherine says:

    Yes, I agree. We want to be independent of the fossil fuel culture, so electrifying our homes with solar panels sounds perfect; “net-zero” as it were. What this concept fails to grasp, is that the making of the PV cells requires electricity from the fossil fuel culture, and also precious metals that must be mined from our ecosystem. They don’t just appear out of thin air, for us to pluck, attach, and use without cost.

    I think the better approach is to minimize our use of power, no matter what the source, even solar. Do we really need TVs in every room? Microwaves and coffee makers in kitchen and master bath? Electric alarm clocks? and so on. Re-evaluate our lifestyle and cut back to essentials.

    And then, if we want to power what remains with solar, fine. We just must remember that not everyone will be able to do this — there is a limit to the resources needed to make the solar equipment. The Early Bird Catches the Worm, as it were.

    If we choose to go solar, we must not allow ourselves to be deluded that this is “net-zero,” because it isn’t. There’s no free lunch.

    Did I use enough cliches in this comment?

  3. Sally says:

    What would constitute Net Zero? Is it basically a meaningless term because it’s impossible to achieve? What don’t I know about the concept other than it isn’t going to be achieved by the project in Denver/Boulder? Has anyone written a post about why it won’t be achieved there? Other people might be as ignorant as I am about Net Zero.

    I have another area of question:

    What will be our national “wealth” when all banking and retail, etc. are kaput? Clean water? Fertile agricultural land? Abundant wildlife? And??? Wouldn’t all those things humans have depended throughout history before industrialization be the ones we’ll need for our future?

    Maybe those things should become our nations’s priorities as we try to massage our world into sustainability.