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PALO ALTO, CA-Move over, Dubai. The US government has announced initiatives to encourage the development of commercial buildings that produce as much energy as they consume–as some private entities already are doing in the Middle East and elsewhere.

On Aug. 5, the US Department of Energy announced the launch of a new Zero-Net Energy Commercial Building Initiative (CBI) with establishment of the National Laboratory Collaborative on Building Technologies Collaborative (NLCBT). Both, the agency says, are part of ongoing efforts to encourage the development of buildings that use technology to offset their energy use from the electricity grid by 2025. Energy generation will be achieved through advanced energy efficiency technologies and on-site renewable energy generation systems, such as solar power and geothermal energy.

“DOE’s Commercial Building Initiative and the Collaborative are urgently needed to accelerate innovation and market adoption in the field of high performance buildings,” says Deputy Assistant Secretary David Rodgers in the announcement. “Now we are bringing to bear the unprecedented collaboration in scientific resources of five National Laboratories to bring about the needed transformation of the built environment, lower our carbon footprint in buildings and accelerate commercial deployment of clean, efficient building technologies.”

This new NLCBT will enable the laboratories–the Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory– to work together more closely on research, validation, and commercialization priorities critical to the success of zero-net energy buildings.

In 2005, commercial buildings used 18% of energy in the United States, accounting for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, the DOE says.

The move is similar to one by the DOE several years ago to encourage zero-net energy homes, says Vaibhav Potnis, a senior technical consultant at Green Building Services, Portland, Ore. “They came up with a lot of good documentation on what zero-net energy means,” Potnis said. “We have a lot of labs doing great work, but it’s hard to get them to talk to each other.”

As a result, he said, very little theoretical work progresses to practical information or applications, at least in the United States. The idea of zero-net energy already is being implemented at several developments worldwide, including the Dynamic Tower in Dubai, whose rotating stories will have wind turbines underneath to make the project self-powered. Similar buildings are planned for Moscow and New York City, according to Italian architect Dr. David Fisher, who discussed the buildings in New York in June.

But some experts wonder whether the technological approach is the right approach. Buildings such as the Rotating Tower, and even zero-net energy cities, are dramatic exceptions to the rule.

“The real issue is how you get this into conventional practice,” offers Jerry Yudelson, a principal of Tucson-based Yudelson Associates, a green building consultancy. “The DOE is trying to find out how to get people to consider zero-net energy as a design goal.”

The DOE is working on a technological solution, Yudelson explains, where good design will provide comparable results. “You can get 50% energy reduction through good design,” he continues. “But you should be able to do it at zero extra cost. You have to attack every aspect of design.”

That’s where the DOE work may be useful. The technological documentation that the NLCBT will provide, free of marketing spin, may encourage developers and designers to implement the new applications, Potnis says.

“It’s amazing how creative people can be,” Yudelson points out. “When you push them.”

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