Chapter 6 - No One is Net Zero Until Everyone is Net Zero

Memoirs of an hourly emissions modeler: a six-part series by Karina Hershberg

We’ve journeyed from theory to deep data dives to practical applications. Let's end this series by returning to the big picture with a look to the future.

[Quick note: In the time since I initially wrote this section, there has suddenly been a wave of excellent pieces on this exact topic from Volts (David Roberts) and Canary Media. I recommend all of them, but especially suggest checking out these two: (skip to the second half)]

Within all the handwringing over data sets, design techniques, and modeling approaches, an interesting conundrum emerges when applying hourly emissions analysis to building design - the summed totals often seem...unremarkable.

The green building industry has become accustomed to double digit EUI reductions and 100% energy offset stats, so it can feel inconsequential to see single digit annual emissions reductions with flexible load solutions.

And yet we know from the grid-scale models and big picture views of energy decarbonization that load flexibility for peak reduction is one of the critical make-or-break elements in grid decarbonization (or as David Roberts says, “Shutting down peakers- that is really God’s work there…”).

The disconnect comes from the fact that we calculate flexible load impacts at the single building scale when, in reality, it is a community scale solution. It won’t have significant impact unless buildings – plural! – do it.

As we move into the era of hourly emissions modeling and design, it’s important we keep focus on this collective vision. Joshua Radoff once phrased it as no one is net zero until everyone is net zero. It’s an interesting flip on how we’ve historically thought about these efforts – single buildings can (and should!) lead the way, but we can only truly solve this problem as a whole industry.

Josh’s statement was framed within a thought exercise on the relationship between buildings and our energy systems. He posed the question: If the goal is to reduce emissions as soon as possible, should we be measuring how many PV panels we’ve added or how many fossil fuel power plants we’ve taken offline?

Currently, we tally up ‘units of energy use avoided’ and ‘output of PV panels added.’ And perhaps that is all we can do at the single building level. Yet, it raises the idea of whether this is decreasing emissions today or mainly avoiding the addition of emissions tomorrow.

Both are crucially important, so the question becomes – does it achieve both and if not, how do we achieve both goals today?

In many ways, this is what the concept of 24/7 Carbon Free Energy (24/7 CFE) is hoping to address. Yet 24/7 CFE is itself an emerging concept and currently focused mainly on the procurement side of the equation. As such, 24/7 CFE is currently only feasible for a portfolio, city, or perhaps community choice aggregator.

It is a fascinating idea and absolutely feels likely the next logical step in the move towards grid decarbonization. But even within 24/7 CFE, there is still potential for the pitfalls that building NZE brought us – it looks solid on paper, but doesn’t move the needle quite as much as we hoped in the real world.

Because even within 24/7 CFE, there will eventually be a point where everyone needs to be included and working together. If not, we could get caught in a trap of simply moving emissions from one ledger to another and not actually changing the collective total. As Peninsula Clean Energy – the first utility group to pursue this approach - commented, “Over time, as more entities are doing this, it makes sense for us to work together to figure out how our resources are complementary.”

This is perhaps the most fundamental shift in thinking that comes from considering a building’s operation within the hourly dimension of time. It forces us to consider our single buildings within the context of larger systems. As Mark Perepelitza mused, “We’ve always thought of buildings as individuals, yet actually buildings are social creatures.”

And it’s when we consider buildings at the community level that it opens the potential to think in terms of fossil fuel power plants removed. These partnered goals to reduce emissions today and avoid adding emissions tomorrow need to be the north star of hourly emissions modeling – helping buildings become participating members of a larger community even when they are designed, built, and operated as individuals.

It can summed up nicely with another good Josh-ism: The building is part of a system - we don’t just want to the building to be zero, we want the system to be zero.

In the end, our Greenbuild team distilled the industry calls to action into three guiding themes:

  • Buildings should be electric, efficient, and able to shape their load. (Bonus points for including distributed energy resources in your building!)
  • Utilities and buildings must work together to solve the problem. (We need utilities to be more transparent with their hourly emissions data and to view buildings as potential grid resources.)
  • The industry needs to incentivize grid-interactive, flexible building solutions.

I’ll end this series with the thought that, perhaps most importantly of all, hourly emissions modeling helps us better understand our relationship with energy in the modern world. We need to expand our view from the dimensions of quantity and source to also include time and scale because that is the reality of how energy works.

As Gretchen Bakke writes in The Grid, “…figuring out ways to design our world to use power when it is made, rather than whenever we feel like it, is a brain-twisting, but fundamentally smart, idea.”

If hourly emissions can help us deploy the tools to make that transition, then it’ll be well worth the effort.

Thanks to anyone who made it through this stream of consciousness. I’d love to hear from others on how they are approaching these concepts, tales of modeling woes, different conclusions – all of it!


*I wrote this series during some quiet moments over the December 2022 holidays. But since I didn’t post it right away, I found myself tinkering with it in the time between writing and posting. My thinking on these topics evolves daily as I learn from others working on these same challenges and I’m immensely grateful to all those who share their wisdom and continue the hard work of moving our industry forward! *

This is by no means an all-encompassing list, but special shoutout to:

Z Smith, Clark Brockman, andJoshua Radoff for the fun Greenbuild session and absolute BEST meetings of 2022.

Jamy Bacchus, Jack Rusk, Kjell Anderson, and Ted Tiffany for their thought leadership on these issues.

*Pieter Gagnon (NREL), Henry Richardson (WattTime) for patiently fielding years of questions… followed by years of more questions…
*And an extra special thank you to my PAE analysis co-pilots Forest Tanier-Gesner, Tim Elley, David Mead, Jules Earley, and Marc Brune,

Also published on LinkedIn by Karina Hershberg

Chapter 1: Not All That Glitters is Zero Carbon
Chapter 2: The Emissions Multiverse
Chapter 3: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Chapter 4: Dr Strange Data, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hourly Emissions
Chapter 5: Wear Nice Glasses and Design Beautiful Spaces
Chapter 6: No One is Net Zero Until Everyone is Net Zero