White House, DOE Define “Zero Emissions Building”

New definition will help U.S. achieve clean energy and climate goals while lowering energy costs, cutting air pollution, and creating jobs.

This week, the White House and the U.S. Department of Energy released a National Definition of a Zero Emissions Building to advance public and private sector efforts to decarbonize the buildings sector. The definition is intended to provide industry guidance to support new and existing commercial and residential buildings to move towards zero emissions across the entire sector.

The definition focuses on three main areas: the determination that a building is:

  • highly energy efficient
  • fully electrified
  • uses only clearly defined clean energy sources.

“The National Definition of a Zero Emissions Building will support the sector as it advances innovative solutions essential to creating resilient communities and high-quality jobs,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “With today’s announcement, DOE is helping bring clarity to our public and private sector partners to support decarbonization efforts and drive investment—paving the way for the cutting-edge clean energy technologies we need to make America’s buildings more comfortable and affordable.”

National Definition Zero Emissions BuildingThe nearly 130 million existing buildings in the U.S. collectively cost over $400 billion a year to heat, cool, light, and power. Between now and 2050, 40 million new homes and 60 billion square feet of commercial floorspace are expected to be built. Establishing a consistent definition for a zero-emissions building is intended to accelerate climate progress, while lowering energy bills. Additionally, the zero emissions definition provides market certainty and clarity to scale zero emissions new construction and retrofits. Earlier this year, DOE laid out a blueprint to reduce U.S. building emissions 65% by 2035 and 90% by 2050.

The full National Definition of a Zero Emissions Building: Part 1 Operational Emissions from Energy Use is available here.

Part 1 of the Definition sets criteria for determining that a building generates zero emissions from energy use in building operations. By the definition, at a minimum, a zero emissions building must be energy efficient, free of onsite emissions from energy use, and powered solely from clean energy. Future parts of this definition may address emissions from embodied carbon (producing, transporting, installing, and disposing of building materials) and additional considerations.

The Definition is not a regulatory standard or a certification, but guidance that public and private entities may adopt to determine whether a building has zero emissions from operational energy use. It’s also not a substitute for the green building and energy efficiency standards and certifications developed by public and private parties.

GBI To Incorporate National Definition Into JNZ Program

In related news, the Green Building Initiative (GBI) will incorporate the newly finalized National Definition for a Zero Emissions Building into its certification for projects in the Green Globes Journey to Net Zero (JNZ) program.

“As a national certification system, we are pleased to be able to incorporate the National Definition for a Zero Emissions Building into GBI’s Green Globes Journey to Net Zero Carbon Certification,” said Vicki Worden, President & CEO, GBI. “GBI believes that by amplifying this Definition, we will support the private sector’s goals together with the goals of the federal government’s leased portfolio to collectively transform and significantly reduce the built environment’s carbon footprint.”

USGBC Applauds Final Definition Of Zero Emissions Building

Peter Templeton, President and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), released the following statement in response to the development of a National Definition of a Zero Emissions Building:

Templeton USGBC GBCI
Peter Templeton, President & CEO, U.S. Green Building Council

“The Biden Administration, perhaps more than any previous administration, recognizes the enormous role that buildings play in our lives and our environment. USGBC has been pleased to collaborate with the White House and the Department of Energy in this effort, and we were thrilled to work with the Biden Administration during Greenbuild to announce plans to create a new national definition of a zero-emissions building.

This is the future of buildings, and the definition will be an important tool for establishing a common understanding of what it really means to be a zero operating emissions building. As financial institutions, investors, and insurers grapple with climate risks, we see the baseline established by this definition as key to evolving market expectations.

USGBC is currently developing the next phase of our LEED rating system – LEED v5 – and we are committed to aligning the new rating systems by including specific LEED certifications designed to certify projects to the national definition. As markets increasingly demand greater sustainability, we hope and expect that it will be a popular approach for future LEED projects.

LEED, which launched the green building revolution 30 years ago, will continue to be the holistic platform that recognizes not just energy-related performance established under this definition but other attributes like materials, water efficiency, waste management, land use, transportation and indoor air quality – all of which are critically important to social equity, human health and community well-being.”


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