Carbon and Energy Efficiency in Building Projects

We attended the Alberta Green Building Symposium in Calgary this past fall, organized and held by the Alberta Chapter of the Canadian Green Building Council. We studied several case studies of sustainable building design and retrofit projects where consultants and developers collaborated to meet efficiency goals. The words "zero-carbon", "net zero", "carbon offsetting", and "energy efficiency" were tossed around a lot. It is essential to understand how each of these impacts a project differently, and on a macro level, how these actions can impact society. 
I also had the opportunity to attend the new Zero Carbon Building Standard workshop that the Canadian Green Building Council has created. This standard in Canada is the first published zero-carbon building certification protocol globally, though many other countries are not far behind. This standard is a big step; however, it's widespread implementation in new and existing buildings is challenging. I was particularly interested in learning that Canada's buildings contribute approximately 35% of all Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions annually. I saw this as a massive opportunity that we, as business and homeowners, have the power to change! 



The definition given by CaGBC of a zero-carbon building is "A building that is highly energy-efficient and produces onsite, or procures, carbon-free renewable energy in an amount sufficient to offset the annual carbon emissions associated with operations". In essence, this means that a building can use fossil fuels and emit carbon as long as they produce equivalent renewable energy value. The standard provides two different certifications for building design and building performance, with various calculations and verification. This allows for existing buildings as well as new construction to be deemed "zero carbon buildings". Some question the need for a zero-carbon building designation when most green building operates through LEED certification levels (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The key difference appears between energy and carbon. The ZCB (Zero Carbon Building) standard focuses on carbon equivalency and actual emissions so that, as a country, we can move towards our emission reduction goals in a quantifiable way. Whereas LEED only has one credit category addressing "energy and atmosphere", it does not guarantee any specific emission reduction per overall certification. Both certifications do address embodied carbon and integrated design processes to decrease waste at varying levels. However, overall, LEED is a more robust program with levels of certification and global recognition. 
Many successful new build projects achieve efficiency goals; however, this is a small portion of the issue. Existing inefficient buildings are everywhere, and as they are slowly abandoned for new builds, there is an extreme amount of waste created. More focus on the LEED O&M certifications and Zero-Carbon Standard for existing buildings has been made, and this shift needs to continue! Unique solutions for all facilities and their functions are available with varying up-front costs that can significantly increase efficiency, occupant comfort, and tenant rates. 
One challenge with energy metrics and goals is that accurate comparisons are not always made. An example is source and site energy use in a building. Source energy traces back to the raw fuel input, thereby accounting for any losses. In contrast, site energy is the amount consumed by a facility as reflected in utility bills which are commonly compared and tabulated, not to mention the variability of carbon intensity per fuel type per region in Canada. Accurate source energy must be determined to reach a building using different fuel sources or existing in varying locations. The carbon equivalent of grid electricity varies depending on location and can make zero-carbon a lot more or less attainable.


Zero-carbon is a daunting task when living in the prairies. The graph above shows that it is more unattainable here than anywhere in Canada. 
However, each building using LESS carbon and owners making MORE informed choices is feasible. By tracking carbon or getting energy audits, buildings and owners are taking the first step towards carbon-zero. 
Depending on project goals, ownership, and available capital, specific sustainability certifications may be more or less attainable. 
Switch Engineering commits to bringing LEED best practices to every project and research any grants or rebates that may be applicable to provide incentives for green building. It may not be Zero-Carbon Designated or LEED Platinum, but every step to increase efficiency is beneficial. It is better for the earth, but more efficient buildings see the payback of their investments in reducing utility costs. Putting effort towards sustainability is proven to positively impact all triple bottom line areas: economic, social and environmental. Switch Engineering does all three levels of Energy Audits, Recommissioning Studies, Engineering studies, has LEED credentialed employees, are members of CaGBC in Alberta, and will continue to educate ourselves on the leading sustainable practices in the industry. 
We are a program ally for Energy Efficiency Alberta who uses the Carbon Tax to fund incentives for Energy Audits, Engineering Studies and Recommissioning Studies. Up to 100% of project costs are available!
Switch Engineering is in the research stage of tracking our operational emissions and plan on offsetting the carbon use by incorporating solar for power and water heating and boilers fueled by biomass. Whatever stage you are in for emission reductions, we want to help. These topics are increasingly more important and will soon be mandatory disruptions. Why not start now?