Gauteng Business News

Send  Share  RSS  Twitter  31 Jan 2011

ENVIRONMENT: A Vision for the Future - Zero Energy Buildings


Recent Gauteng Business News

As environmental responsibility and eco-consciousness grow across the globe, the world is looking to move towards more sustainable, greener practices, reducing carbon footprints and creating environments that have a lesser impact on the environment. Physical premises make up a large proportion of any organisation's impact and as such there is a worldwide movement towards more energy efficient and eco-friendly buildings, with some countries more proactive in this area than others.

In South Africa particularly the looming energy crisis and ever-increasing cost of utilities such as electricity are driving this new consciousness as organisations seek to find ways to decrease costs, with an added benefit of improved environmental impact through reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

There are many ways in which companies are seeking to reduce energy consumption and carbon footprints, a number of which are currently being employed locally and around the world, from utilising available natural light to recycling water and using excess energy generated by air conditioners to heat water. But constructing greener buildings is far from the end point in the pursuit of energy efficiency and sustainability.

In fact the ultimate state for buildings -- both commercial and residential -- is to create net-zero energy buildings. These, put simply, offset the use of energy from fossil fuel sources such as utility electricity by generating energy on-site using renewable sources, so that the net environmental impact is zero. In other words non-renewable energy is used simply to supplement that created by the building in times of high demand, and during times of low demand excess energy generated on site can be exported back to the utility grid, cancelling out any usage of electricity from the grid.

While there are a few of this type of buildings in existence in the United States, for countries like South Africa, where energy has historically been delivered at low cost and the return on investment for implementing renewable energy source technology as a result has been low, the zero energy concept is currently far from becoming a reality. However this is the ideal, a vision for the future that gives the environmentally and cost conscious organisations a goal to aim at when beginning the journey towards more sustainable buildings.

Currently, creating a zero energy building in South Africa is not yet financially viable, as renewable energy technology remains expensive to implement and the ROI cannot be justified even against rising utility energy costs. Aside from this, there is at the moment no system in place to sell excess energy back onto the national power grid, so the system cannot pay for itself in this fashion either.

However as more research is put into renewable energy sources such as solar power and wind turbines, and as demand grows, the price of these will begin to drop. And the reality is that with the energy situation as it stands in the country the cost of utility energy will only increase as supply cannot keep up with demand. Planning ahead for the day when a zero energy building will not only be financially viable, but will in fact save money, is key to the future sustainability of enterprise in South Africa.

Businesses would do well to begin taking the steps that will lead to greater efficiency now, so that when renewable energy sources and zero energy buildings become a viable option they are ready to seize the opportunity and reap the benefits, both financial and environmental.

Creating improved efficiency is the first step on the journey towards a zero energy building, as energy saved is energy that the building itself does not need to produce. While the end goal is to produce energy on site, steps to improve efficiency now will provide immediate benefit and will set the building in a strong position to create zero energy impact in future.

One of the easiest and quickest was to improve efficiency is to reduce every energy consuming load as much as possible as well as to eliminate unnecessary energy usage. Second to this is the need to create systems efficiency to meet the required loads as effectively as possible. This can be done by ensuring that motors, fans and insulation amongst other aspects are optimal for the building, to reduce wasted energy. These two steps provide quick wins that will deliver immediate returns.

To take energy efficiency to the next level, regenerative systems can be put into place to use waste energy for practical purposes, such as the earlier example of HVAC energy being used to heat water. Choosing energy efficient devices when it comes time to upgrade is another important step and one which can be taken at any time.

Finally, the last step in creating zero-energy buildings is to implement renewable systems that generate power on site using renewable sources, such as solar power, wind farms, biomass or even thermal energy depending on the location of the building and the nature of the surrounding environment.

While the concept of a net zero energy building in South Africa is currently just that, a concept and nothing more, there will come a time when such a venture will make financial sense and become a viable option, and that time is not too far in the future.

Planning for this eventuality by having the vision and taking the first steps on the journey towards greener, more sustainable buildings will stand organisations in good stead for years ahead, ensuring not only less environmental impact but improved sustainability and profitability as well.

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