REAL ESTATE MINUTE With Cyril Nii Ayitey Tetteh: Is the race to net zero buildings a fad?

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REAL ESTATE : Is the race to net zero buildings a fad?

Hello Ghana, I trust each and every one of you is keeping well. It’s another week and we are back with our serialized recaps from the 4th Ghana Green Building Summit 2021. As the world attempts to navigate a net-zero transition by 2050, Africa is bracing for a huge demographic shift.

More than half of the 2 billion people who will be added to the global population by 2050 will be Africans. Buildings play a key role in this transition hence our focus on Net Zero Buildings, with particular emphasis on the African situation. This session sought to assess whether the race to net zero is borne out of a genuine threat or is it just one of many fads in our time?

The Panel comprised of Smita Chandra Thomas, Founder and Principal at Energy Shrink, USA; Alexi Miller, NBI Associate Technical Director, USA; Pauline Anaman, External Advisor, EU H2020 NEGEM Project; Solome Girma, Director, Program Management Office at District of Columbia Sustainable Energy Utility with Chilufya Lombe, Partner, Solid Green Consulting, SA moderating. Highlights of the session is presented below:

Net Zero Buildings

Solome Girma provided context to her presentation by defining Net Zero Buildings. A Net Zero Building, she mentioned is an energy-efficient building, where on source energy basis, the actual annual energy delivered is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy. It is essentially a balance between energy consumed and produced.

She indicated that whether the building is sited in Ghana or the USA, there are common operational elements like lighting, cooling and heating that enable us to meet our everyday household needs like powering water heaters, fans, pumps, computers and charging our phones etc.

These activities consume a lot of energy and it only makes sense we balance what we consume versus what we produce. To achieve this balance, she recommended that first and foremost there is the need to ensure buildings are energy efficient through everyday operations and maintenance management with the goal of at least achieving 50 – 70% reduction from standard buildings that exist today without the Net Zero concept behind it.’’

Solome indicated that from her base, the US Government decided to focus attention on schools taking up net zero programs mainly because the numbers made economic sense. In the US, there are about 131,000 schools with 50.6 million students and 3.5 million teachers. In addition to the numbers, the schools made for excellent models as the potential for effective knowledge transfer through new generation education could not be missed. She said “There are school kids who get to play with the solar panels and really learn first-hand how these buildings operate and then through energy efficiency programs, reduce energy. Having the schools as one of the first places to start investing in was thus a no brainer.”

Making the Business Case

Smita Chandra Thomas in her presentation offered a slight variation on the definition of Net Zero Buildings from Solome’s. Smita said “We have to remember that even though we may be balancing the energy we are drawing from the grid with what we are exporting from our solar panels, the energy being produced on the grid is still producing greenhouse gas emissions.

The building may be Net Zero, but those emissions from the grid are still going into the air. And once they are in the air, they stay in the air for hundreds of years. So, the goal for all of us should not be just Net Zero, the goal for all of us should be Zero use of Fossil Fuels, because that’s what creates greenhouse gas emissions. We need energy to live, we need energy to work, but we do not want to get it from fossil fuels.

That’s the goal.” She further pointed out that there is a strong business case for green buildings in emerging economies because: Buildings consume large amounts of energy; The demand for new buildings, especially housing, is booming. Africa is one of the fastest growing regions in the world, and the African construction market is expected to grow at a rate of 6-7% over the next 5 years. The utility costs for both residential and commercial sectors is very high in Africa.

In housing, annual energy savings in homes can cost more than a month of rent. Net Zero buildings make enormous sense for these reasons. Examples around the world show that net zero buildings can be attractive, modern, and built at commercially competitive costs. They can even come in under budget if the project team utilizes integrated design principles from the project outset. Commenting that designing for net zero is both an art and a science, Smita emphasized that an understanding of how a building interacts with the grid can produce even better results.

Challenges with Going Green in Ghana

Pauline Anaman in her presentation provided context on Ghana’s state of readiness to go green even before leaping to net zero by recapping a study she conducted. The study was on how individuals and companies are interested in investing in green buildings considering the potential benefits that it brings. She revealed that the key finding is that in Ghana there is a link between green buildings and property values but that link or realisation of that value is not possible in our present situation, rather in the future.

The reasons she adduced for that situation range from first and foremost, people not having the requisite knowledge about the importance of green buildings, to low awareness as well as people being comfortable with the building methods that exist now. People are also not being proactive by taking steps to realise the importance of green buildings for the environment, for their bottom line and also for their businesses.

There are also the high investment costs, in Ghana particular, it is difficult to get cheap financing for green buildings and even when they source funding from the banks, they have to contend with high interest rates. In scaling the challenges to realise the benefits of going green, Pauline mentioned that beyond awareness creation, government needs to push legislation and regulation that will promote uptake, noting that some of these interventions have started with IFC leading a revision of building codes which should soon be passed into law.

The Five Foundations of Net Zero Buildings

Alexi Miller in his presentation shared key trends and findings from the Getting to Zero Buildings Database. This database tracks the roughly 730 Net Zero energy and carbon-neutral commercial and multifamily buildings across North America. While Net Zero buildings can be found across the world, Alexi built from his North American experience to identify important findings for the world at large and for Africa in particular.

The central theme in his presentation was the five foundations of the Zero Carbon buildings – namely Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy, Grid Integration + Storage, Building Electrification, and Life-Cycle Impacts. Each of these is important in their own right, but a best-in-class zero carbon building team should consider how to optimize project outcomes in each of these foundations. Alexi noted, “we know from experience, drawing from our database of 700+ net zero energy buildings in North America, that there are many pathways to a green building, all starting with energy efficiency.

A wide range of proven and emerging solutions are available to make buildings more efficient, cleaner, more affordable, healthier, and safer. African zero carbon and high-performance building professionals can learn from past successes and challenges, both at home and abroad, to leapfrog past many dead ends to make buildings part of the solution to the climate crisis.

I know this is not a fad where I live nor is it a fad in many other parts of the world.” Alexi noted several key lessons learned by leading project teams with net zero building experience, including setting aggressive energy performance targets early in the process and getting strong commitments from all decision makers to achieving the targets. Median performance from verified net zero energy in North America is about 60 kWh/m2/yr; the great majority of net zero energy buildings use less than 100 kWh/m2/yr.

The importance of efficiency first was really brought home by Chilufya as the moderator, who summarized the discussion. “We saw first-hand examples of just how energy efficient buildings have to be to achieve net zero. We saw how achievable that really is in practice, with hundreds of project examples. Typical net zero energy building energy usage was 40%-60% less than one of the most stringent energy codes in the world (the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code).

We also saw the important role that building codes can play in setting the right environment for energy savings.” The race to Net Zero is definitely not a fad. It is an opportunity to not only solve a serious environmental issue but also to create a resilient, affordable, healthy building stock that is energy efficient enough to solve energy supply issues that are a burden to development in Africa.

This session was first presented at 4th Ghana Green Building Summit 2021.

The writer is the Executive director of Yecham Property Consult  & Founder of the Ghana Green Building Summit.

Email: [email protected]

LinkedIn: Cyril Nii Ayitey Tetteh

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