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DOE Announces National Definition of a Zero Emissions Building

June 10, 2024
A standardized definition for zero emissions buildings has been revealed

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced 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 and help the nation achieve climate goals, while cutting home and business energy costs. A standardized definition for zero emissions buildings will help advance next-generation clean energy solutions, drive innovation, and tackle the climate crisis, while supporting workforce development. 

According to the DOE, there are nearly 130 million existing buildings in the United States, which collectively cost over $400 billion a year to heat, cool, light, and power, with 40 million new homes and 60 billion square feet of commercial floorspace expected to be constructed between now and 2050. One in four American households—and 50% of low-income households—struggle to pay their energy bills. Establishing a consistent definition for a zero-emissions building will accelerate climate progress, while lowering home and business 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. Major technical advances in energy efficiency, heat pumps, and clean energy mean that new and existing buildings can help the nation achieve zero emissions, while ensuring domestic manufacturing of the technologies and low embodied carbon materials needed for these next-generation buildings. Additionally, the buildings sector can plug into a grid that is rapidly becoming cleaner and help to improve climate resiliency. Buildings can be constructed and retrofitted to use a fraction of the energy they once used. 

National Definition of a Zero Emissions Building: Part 1 Operational Emissions from Energy Use

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. 

In developing Part 1 of the Definition, DOE published a request for information (RFI) that solicited input from members of the public, in response to which industry, academia, research laboratories, government agencies, and other stakeholders provided feedback. Implementation guidance included with the Definition provides additional information on these criteria. The Definition is not a regulatory standard or a certification. It is guidance that public and private entities may adopt to determine whether a building has zero emissions from operational energy use.  The definition is not a substitute for the green building and energy efficiency standards and certifications that public and private parties have developed. 

Additionally, alongside the announcement: 

  • Eight major green building certification programs in the U.S. announced that they will embed or align or exceed the zero emissions definition within their certification. Many certifications go even further to demonstrate climate leadership by exceeding the criteria of the definition.
  • In December 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 14057 on Federal Sustainability and issued his Federal Sustainability Plan, which calls on agencies to achieve a federal net-zero emissions building portfolio by 2045. As part of today’s effort, the Federal Government will use the National Definition in leasing net-zero emissions buildings, which will become the standard for Federal leases beginning in 2030.  

The full National Definition of a Zero Emissions Building Part 1 is available in National Definition of a Zero Emissions Building Part 1: Operational Emissions from Energy Use (Version 1)

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