Getting Commercial Buildings on the Path to Net Zero

Our buildings are directly contributing to climate change and local air pollution. Energy used in our homes and buildings contributes up to 40% of U.S. energy related greenhouse gas emissions, but it doesn’t have to be this way. There is incredible potential to help mitigate climate change and clean Utah’s air by working with commercial real estate industry, architects, engineers and local governments to support utility-sponsored incentives that help new buildings get on the path to net zero!

A net zero building is highly energy efficient, with renewable energy (located either on-site or offsite, depending on the standard) providing all of the building’s energy needs. Net zero buildings with on-site renewable energy have lower monthly energy bills since they generate some or all of the energy needed through clean energy located on the building. And most importantly, it is a building that is mitigating climate change, instead of contributing to it.

Will New Commercial Buildings be Energy Makers or Energy Wasters?

Utah’s population is booming, and with it comes increased economic activity, new businesses, and new buildings. New buildings constructed today will be standing – and using energy – over the next 50+ years. Helping new buildings get on the path to net zero today helps buildings become part of the solution now, instead of saddling our economy with buildings that are energy wasters and pollution makers. (Related: A recent study from the Ben Abbot Lab at Brigham Young University estimated that the cost of bad air quality to Utah’s economy $1.8 billion annually.)

Since 2012, the United States and Canada have seen a 700% increase in net zero energy and ultra-low energy commercial buildings. Here in Utah, net zero commercial buildings are being built today using readily available designs, technologies, and construction methods. However, many construction and development professionals face a “net zero learning curve” because net zero buildings are relatively new to the Utah market. So how do we encourage more zero energy building in Utah?

Forward Thinking Utilities are Providing ‘Net Zero’ Incentives and Rocky Mountain Power is Poised to As Well

Utah’s primary electric utility, Rocky Mountain Power, invests around upwards of $50 million of rate-payer funds in energy efficiency incentive programs every year to help Utah families and businesses cut energy use, save money, and reduce strain on the utility grid. Right now, Rocky Mountain Power is working to re-vamp an incentive program that provides technical and financial “design assistance” for new commercial buildings.

Utah Clean Energy sees RMP’s updated incentive program as a game-changer! It should be designed to help new commercial buildings (and major rehabs) get on the path to net zero through technical support, ambitious energy use targets to achieve deep levels of energy savings, and strategically timed financial incentives. These ideas are best practices found in similar incentive programs offered by the Energy Trust of Oregon and Mass Save. In collaboration with the Utah Commercial Real Estate Task Force (UCRE), AIA Utah, ASHRAE Utah, New Buildings Institute, and government leaders from Salt Lake City School District, Salt Lake City, Park City, and Moab, Utah Clean Energy convened industry representatives to develop a series of recommendations about how we think the revamped incentive program should look. Commercial building owners and managers, as well as architects and engineers weighed in during several virtual meetings and through an online survey sponsored by Utah Clean Energy UCRE, AIA Utah, ASHRAE Utah, and New Buildings Institute.

Feedback from the survey showed strong support for new utility-sponsored incentive program to help overcome the “net zero learning curve.” Below is a brief overview of the priorities from this collaboration, which we recommended to Rocky Mountain Power:

  1. Provide options: The new incentive program should have both beginner-level and advanced-level options.
  2. Ultra-efficient buildings: Incentives should support ultra-efficient buildings with low energy use intensity (EUI), which is the amount of energy used per square foot per year in a building and is an industry standard metric for measuring building energy performance. The new RMP program should include a more ambitious option based on EUI targets from the 2021 IECC’s Zero Energy Commercial Building Appendix and also less ambitious from the State of Utah’s High Performance Building Standard.
  3. Provide incentives at key stages: Incentives should come in key stages that reward owners, designers, and contractors for reaching deep levels of energy efficiency. Key stages supported by the industry group include pre-design planning, early stage preliminary energy modeling and EUI target setting, and final energy modeling and final EUI target selection, when construction documents are being completed.
  4. Coordinate with other RMP incentives: The new program should also make it easy for new commercial buildings to utilize other incentives also offered by RMP, including incentives for EV chargers, installing on-site battery storage, and efficient electric heat pump heating systems.

It is Time to Prioritize Zero Energy Buildings

We simply cannot address climate change without ramping up energy efficiency of our buildings, providing the energy needed through renewable energy, and shifting away from on-site fossil fuel combustion for space and water heating. Helping commercial buildings get on the ‘path to net zero’ is critical to addressing climate change and cleaning Utah’s air. We have all the technologies and methods to do so, and this new incentive program has the potential to help owners, designers, and contractors overcome the net zero learning curve.

Stay tuned to Utah Clean Energy’s newsletter and website to learn about Rocky Mountain Power’s proposed new program.


kevin emerson

Kevin Emerson, MSc

Director of Building Efficiency and Decarbonization

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