Zero Emissions Building Definition Comments

Daniel Avery

Director of Policy

February 5, 2024

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The Real Estate Board of New York (“REBNY”) is the City’s leading real estate trade association representing commercial, residential, and institutional property owners, builders, managers, investors, brokers, salespeople, and other organizations and individuals active in New York City real estate. The New York Energy Consumers Council (“NYECC”) and its predecessor organizations have represented the energy interests of commercial property owners and managers in New York City before State agencies for 70 plus years. NYECC also continues to represent institutions such as colleges, governmental agencies, financial institutions, and real estate organizations. NYECC’s membership includes landmark member properties such as One World Trade Center, 7 World Trade Center, One Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center. REBNY and NYECC value this opportunity to comment on the Department of Energy’s (“DOE”) draft zero emissions buildings (“ZEBs”) definition.

REBNY and NYECC appreciate and support the DOE’s and the White House’s intent of defining ZEBs. Having a generally accepted common definition of the minimal requirements for meeting zero emissions standards, as well as a clear process to document and verify such status, will provide critical guidance to building owners and managers in their necessary work to decarbonize the building sector. We also agree that the definition is broad and not prescriptive, and so will allow for a range of pathways to achieving ZEB status. Finally, we appreciate that the definition can apply to existing and new buildings.

The draft definition focuses on three criteria: highly efficient buildings, buildings that are free of on-site emissions from energy generation, and buildings that are powered solely from clean energy. In general, we agree that these three features are appropriate and sufficient for the definition of ZEBs for this current iteration. ZEB status should be reserved for top-of-class buildings, and these criteria will help to identify those buildings. Please see below for our comments on each of these criteria.

A common and clear definition of ZEB, once finalized, will be useful in a wide range of applications, even without an official certification option. For example, it will be used for corporate disclosures related to climate and emissions, in Non-Governmental Organizations’ (NGO) rating systems, for green building investment and incentive programs, and in commercial and residential leases, among other things.

The definition of ZEB will be iterative, especially as Energy Star evolves, including by adding more GHGs, such as refrigerants. We recommend that updates not be too frequent, perhaps on a five-year schedule, with sufficient notice and education about potential upcoming changes.

ZEB compliance could be attached to a particular year and would need to be re-verified on a regular, to-be-determined basis.

In addition, it will take considerable time for most buildings to achieve ZEB status. It would be helpful to have intermediate designations that recognize and encourage buildings that are making progress towards being ZEBs. We believe that the overall aim should be for buildings to achieve ZEB status by 2040 which, in New York at least, would be consistent with other climate goals, although this must be contingent upon and aligned with the decarbonization of the grid and district steam.

Below are some comments on the three criteria mentioned above.

Highly Energy Efficient

Building that meet the ZEB definition must first be “highly efficient.” For existing buildings, this means the building is in the top 25% compared to buildings with similar attributes and uses, which means the building has an ENERGY STAR score of 75 or better. This criterion is based on the actual measured total energy use of the buildings. New buildings must be at least 10% more efficient than the most recent IECC or ASHRAE 90.1 model code and designed to be in the top 10% in terms of energy efficiency as compared to comparable buildings. The criterion for new buildings is based on energy modelling.

We have concerns that the criterion for existing buildings that are eligible for an EPA ENERGY STAR score relies exclusively on EPA’s ENERGY STAR program, requiring buildings to score 75 or better, such that they are in the highest 25% compared to other buildings with similar attributes and uses. First, there is compelling evidence that ENERGY STAR does not score buildings over one million square feet accurately, giving them lower scores than they deserve. In addition, tenant energy uses can be quite impactful to ENERGY STAR scores. Together, these are significant obstacles, especially for large commercial buildings in NYC.

Consequently, we believe that larger commercial buildings should have a second pathway to meeting the ZEB definition. One possibility is that building owners could submit a written description of the measures they have taken to meet such a standard. To that end, it would be helpful if DOE provided a list of measures a building would need to take to meet the “highly energy efficient” aspect of the definition in the alternative. Additionally, we suggest that a building that has met the Passive House standard would also meet the ZEB definition.

Free of On-Site Energy Emissions

This criterion requires that a building’s direct GHG emissions on site is equal to zero. To meet this standard, the building cannot combust any fossil fuels, with the minor exception of testing and using backup generators when grid power is unavailable.

We agree with this criterion, but recommend that an exemption for on-site backup generation for emergencies also include peak demand management to support grid resiliency.

We also concur with the approach of using 12 months of data that is third-party verified. However, building owners may have trouble gathering such data from tenants and utilities without additional federal guidance and tools in order to do so.

Powered Solely from Clean Energy

This criterion means that all energy used by the building is generated by carbon-free sources, whether generation originates on-site or off-site.

We agree with this criterion, with the following additional clarification. The final definition should state that all forms of carbon-free energy sources are allowed, including, but not limited to, hydro, nuclear, hydrogen, biofuels, solar, wind, and geothermal.

We also very much appreciate the inclusion of market-based strategies such as Renewable Energy Credits (“RECs”), power purchase agreements, and green tariffs. Without such essential tools, very few buildings can achieve ZEB status. We also agree that RECs and similar tools should not be geographically based.