When It Comes to Buildings and Climate Change, Colorado Matters

Colorado regularly tops the list of most active and “fittest” states in the U.S. We love to hike, bike, ski, and really do anything outdoors. So do more than 77 million tourists who come to our state each year to visit national parks, ski and snowboard, and hike our lovely mountains. All of these activities rely on blue, pollution-free skies, open, natural spaces, and, of course, snow—all of which are being threatened by a warming planet.

Buildings have an enormous impact on earth’s climate. Globally, they consume 35 percent of all energy and 60 percent of all generated electricity, making them the largest end-use energy sector, followed by industry and transportation. Buildings’ appetite for electricity—most of which is produced by fossil fuels—threatens our climate, our economy, and our health.

Fortunately, businesses, developers, and citizens in Colorado are stepping up to alleviate this impact with superefficient buildings (which are 50 percent higher-performing than code-compliant buildings) and increasingly, net-zero carbon buildings. Here are a few examples that show how the state is leading the charge in redefining the built environment and why—as we drive toward a clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon energy future—Colorado Matters.

Leadership at a Mile High

In 2015, Colorado ranked fifth in the nation for square feet of LEED-certified building space per state resident, with 95 certified projects representing over 12 million square feet of real estate, according to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Data from the Council’s 2015 Green Building Economic Impact Study show LEED construction is expected to support 103,000 jobs in Colorado and have a total impact on GDP of $9.05 billion from 2015–2018.

But that just scratches the surface of the performance and economic growth potential available in the state when it comes to buildings. An emerging number of projects show what is possible when a building is not only efficient, but also harnesses the abundant Colorado sun and other renewable energy sources: net-zero carbon (NZC).

There are only a few hundred NZC buildings in the U.S. Here in Colorado, we boast several, including one of the best known: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory Research Support Facility, in Golden. This large, 220,000-square-foot office facility was completed in 2010 at typical market cost. Its energy goal (or “energy use intensity,” EUI) was about 35 kBtu/sq. Ft., and rooftop solar panels produce enough clean electricity on-site to meet this 35 EUI budget.

Rocky Mountain Institute’s Innovation Center, located at an elevation of 6,600+ feet in Basalt, opened up about a year ago and takes high performance a step further. It is a net-positive building, producing more energy then it uses (plus enough to power six electric vehicle charging stations) on an annual basis, thanks to incredible levels of efficiency and an 83 kW rooftop solar photovoltaic system with a 43 kW lithium-ion battery. While only 15,610 square feet in size, it is massively insulated, airtight, with a small, distributed electric radiant heating system, and no traditional cooling system. Our modeled EUI is 17.2, but with almost a year’s worth of performance data, the EUI is shaping up to be just under 16, or half as much as the NREL facility.

Retrofitting existing buildings is equally important. Again, here in Colorado we have a great example in the Wayne Aspinall Courthouse in Grand Junction—a beautiful 100-year-old historic building that has been renovated to NZC. The U.S. General Services Administration, which owns the building, has insulated the walls and windows and installed efficient lighting and mechanical equipment.

Net-zero carbon isn’t just for offices. The Revive development in Fort Collins is possibly the first residential development in the country to achieve “beyond net zero.” The highly efficient homes and townhomes generate renewable energy by geothermal and solar electric means. Homeowners can track how much electricity their homes produce and then benefit from negative utility bills when they overproduce electricity. Fort Collins is currently considering the new building requirements associated with its Climate Action Plan, which seeks to achieve climate neutrality in Fort Collins by 2050.

Even schools are taking note. The Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), for example, has embarked on an ambitious program to have its portfolio of over 50 school buildings be net-zero carbon and achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. Over 70 percent of BVSD’s 4.8 million square feet of buildings are over 30 years old, so the program includes retro-commissioning and deep retrofits as well as new construction. RMI partnered with BVSD not only to help it reach its remarkable goal, but also to create roadmaps that can educate and potentially motivate other school districts throughout the state and country to strive for net-zero carbon.

In a state that’s probably better known for its high mountains than high-performance buildings, these leading projects send a signal to the rest of the country that Colorado is a leader in innovation, performance, and long-term competitiveness. We’re looking beyond buildings that simply put a roof over our heads for 90 percent of the day, to spaces that are more comfortable, safer, healthier, and more productive for the electricity grid, which is increasingly being powered by cleaner, renewable energy sources.

What’s Next In Colorado?

High-performance, net-zero carbon buildings destroy the myth of buildings as independent entities. Getting to zero means taking advantage of things that have been ignored, like climate, sun, and wind, and even how the building occupants use the space. These buildings are best when they connect to the environment, which often includes other buildings. This means that a “neighborhood” or “district” approach to creating high-performance buildings offers big advantages, both economically and technically. RMI describes the advantages of interactive, larger-scale, net-zero developments in this insight brief.

In addition, as Colorado’s grid gets cleaner, and as the state becomes increasingly powered by distributed energy resources, like efficiency and solar, high-performance buildings can play a role in a cost-effective transition to a cleaner grid. Because these buildings reduce loads, participate in demand response, and add renewable capacity, they will command much more attention from developers, building owners, and electric utilities as generators of energy and income, rather than just consumers.

These concepts and others will be explored at the 2016 Getting to Zero National Forum on Oct. 12–14 in Denver. It’s appropriate that the Mile High City will serve as the backdrop for the nation’s only event dedicated to net-zero carbon buildings, where industry leaders will share perspectives on the growth of net zero, discuss the policies driving new projects, show how to engage in best practices for successful outcomes, and collaborate on opportunities to transform the built environment in Colorado and beyond. We hope you can join us.