Zero-Emission Buildings: How Hydrogen Can Fuel Sustainable Design
Reversing the effects of climate change continues to be a top priority cross-industry. And innovative thinkers are changing everything about how we live, from travel and housing to agricultural production and beyond—all in the pursuit of net-zero.
This shared goal extends to the decarbonization of the building sector.
Commercial and residential structures are substantial carbon contributors, accounting for nearly 40% of annual global CO2 emissions between construction and continual operation. Recognizing this imperative, the federal government has introduced stringent regulations, mandating new constructions and major modernizations above 25,000 GSF to be net-zero emissions by 2045, with a 50% reduction by 2032.
In the quest for net-zero buildings, hydrogen fuel emerges as the crucial catalyst for turning sustainable blueprints into functional, eco-friendly designs.
What Is a Net-Zero Building?
A net-zero building, also known as a zero energy building (ZEB), is defined by the US Department of Energy as a structure that “produces enough renewable energy to meet its own annual energy consumption requirements, thereby reducing the use of non-renewable energy in the building sector.”
In practice, ZEBs will utilize a variety of smart, energy-efficient features and appliances, including but not limited to:
- Efficient appliances
- Smart thermostats
- Solar panels
- Charging points
- Energy-efficient heating
- Energy-efficient lighting
- High-performance windows
- Air filtration & ventilation
- Roof insulation
Yet, it's insufficient to merely curtail emissions. ZEBs are also required to generate adequate power to meet their varying energy demands—without the crutch of a fossil fuel-dependent power grid.
How this energy will actually be supplied to meet the remaining demand will vary from one building to another. As the World Green Building Council notes, there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. For some buildings, on-site renewables may cover 100% of energy needs. Yet, off-site renewables can fill the gap for others where this isn't viable, resulting in net-zero operational carbon.
Different paths, same destination—net-zero emissions. And the environmental benefits are clear:
- Reduced GHG emissions – By operating on a net-zero energy basis, these buildings significantly minimize carbon dioxide output and other harmful greenhouse gasses.
- Energy conservation – By maximizing energy efficiency and minimizing waste, these buildings demand less from the power grid, thereby reducing the strain on our energy resources.
- Climate change mitigation – By dramatically lowering CO2 emissions, zero-emission buildings help alleviate global warming, contributing to broader efforts to halt climate change.
Solar Energy’s Shortcoming in the Building Sector
Solar energy was originally poised to support the building sector as it aimed for net-zero. Although clean and renewable, solar has serious limitations.
In regions that experience sun for most of the year, like Southern California, solar could theoretically cover 100% of energy needs. But even in these sun-kissed locations, backup support is necessary when the weather turns. It’s also not replicable in all areas: consider locales like Buffalo, New York, that average 208 cloudy days each year.
Additionally, solar power cannot be easily stored long-term. That means it must either be used immediately or housed in expensive battery storage systems. Additionally, the need for vast swathes of panels to generate meaningful power also raises issues of space constraints and aesthetics.
So while solar may be a part of the solution, it isn’t the one-stop solution for sustainable energy for buildings.
Herein lies why more and more people are turning to hydrogen energy technologies.
Hydrogen Energy Solutions for Zero-Emission Buildings
As the technology continues to evolve by the day, hydrogen energy emerges as the most feasible way ZEBs of the future can reduce emissions and meet sustainability goals. As an energy carrier, hydrogen's versatility helps overcome the limitations of other renewables and facilitates decarbonization in sectors that have been notoriously difficult to abate, such as buildings and construction.
Key benefits of hydrogen energy solutions like hydrogen fuel cells in ZEBs include:
- Energy independence – From homes to hospitals, buildings powered by hydrogen fuel cells can operate independently off the grid, providing a reliable power supply, even in outage situations.
- Zero emissions – Blue and green hydrogen generate zero-emission by-products, providing a clean energy alternative that’s far superior to any other currently available.
- High energy density – Hydrogen has a high energy density by weight, making it especially efficient for energy storage and transport and practical for applications where weight matters.
- Grid flexibility – Hydrogen can balance grid operations by being produced during times of excess supply and consumed in times of high demand or low renewable generation. This flexibility ensures that the grid remains stable and the power supply steady.
- Versatility – In industries like manufacturing, construction, and logistics, where heavy machinery and transport often rely on carbon-intensive fuels, hydrogen can offer a zero-emission alternative. Hydrogen fuel cells can power everything from forklifts to heavy-duty trucks, reducing both operational emissions and environmental impact.
- Frictionless alternative – Transitioning from fossil fuels to hydrogen technology is typically far less intrusive and costly. Existing gas infrastructure can often be retrofitted for hydrogen use, and fuel cells can be incorporated into existing structures with minimal changes. This eases the transition process and makes hydrogen an attractive option for many businesses.
Advantages of Zero-Emission Buildings
While the environmental implications of zero-emission buildings are clear and compelling, property owners—whether businesses, investors, or homeowners—understandably care about the economic impact.
There's good news on this front: going green doesn't just benefit the planet. It can be a wise investment that pays significant ROI over the long run.
Some of the economic advantages of a net zero business model include:
- Reduced energy costs – Energy efficiency is a key principle of ZEB design, which can result in significant long-term energy savings. By generating their own renewable energy, these buildings reduce reliance on the grid, resulting in lower energy bills.
- Increased property value – Zero-emission buildings are typically equipped with state-of-the-art energy-efficient features and technologies, which can enhance their market value. As sustainability becomes more top of mind for buyers and renters alike, eco-friendly and energy-efficient properties can command premium prices.
- Enhanced marketability – Going even further, sustainability sells. A property that boasts zero emissions can stand out in a crowded real estate market, attracting buyers and renters who prioritize environmental responsibility. This can mean quicker sales or rental closes and potentially higher rates.
A Hydrogen-Powered Success Study
Recently, Toyota Logistics Services (TLS) in Long Beach, California, underwent a major renovation. The project included a reconstruction of the facility, the incorporation of a five-station heavy-duty hydrogen fueling network, and most importantly, the development of the Trigeneration Direct Fuel Cell Power Plant.
The Trigen plant will supply hydrogen fuel and be used to generate renewable electricity, making this location the first Toyota port of operations in the world to function entirely on 100% renewable electricity via onsite generation.
As such, TLS Long Beach has applied for (and expects to achieve) LEED certification, meaning the entire location satisfies ZEB standards.
With ambitious net-zero targets not far on the horizon, buildings must be built or retrofitted for sustainability now. ZEBs, powered by hydrogen, are one of the missing pieces of the clean energy infrastructure puzzle.
At FASTECH, we’re doing our part to foster the hydrogen-powered revolution. As end-to-end energy solution providers specializing in alternative energy infrastructure, our team can provide the engineering, procurement, construction, and maintenance expertise you need to create functional zero-emission buildings.
Want to discover more about how hydrogen can fuel the net-zero transition? Contact us today to learn how FASTECH can help your business reduce its carbon footprint.
Sustainability.Gov. Net-Zero Emissions Buildings by 2045, including a 50% reduction by 2032. https://www.sustainability.gov/federalsustainabilityplan/buildings.html
The Economist. The construction industry remains horribly climate-unfriendly.https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/06/15/the-construction-industry-remains-horribly-climate-unfriendly
Department of Energy. A Common Definition for Zero Energy Buildings. https://www.energy.gov/sites/default/files/2015/09/f26/bto_common_definition_zero_energy_buildings_093015.pdf
World Building Council. What Is a Net-Zero Carbon Building? https://worldgbc.org/advancing-net-zero/what-is-a-net-zero-carbon-building/