Net Zero: Opportunities for Neighborhood Development

energy-use-chartLast month during three events—an 8 to 80 event focused on the Ford Site,  the 20th Annual Great River Gathering, and the U.S. Green Building Council of Minnesota’s annual Impact Conference, Mayor Chris Coleman touched on a concept that holds a lot of opportunity for the City of Saint Paul: net zero. But what does net zero actually mean? And why is it good for cities like Saint Paul?

Sometimes it seems that a little clarification is needed around “net zero”. For the purpose of this post, net zero is about energy. In very broad terms, net-zero energy means producing enough energy to offset the amount of energy used. Net-zero energy is not the same as net-zero waste. Net-zero waste focuses on attempting to keep trash from landfills and incinerators through concepts like minimizing packaging materials and reusing materials through the supply chain. It does not focus on energy efficiency or energy production.


Net-zero buildings are built to use as little energy as possible by using thoughtful design and good construction practices to maximize energy efficiency. This can include air-tight walls and ceilings, passive solar heating and cooling techniques, daylighting, and automatic thermostats, occupancy sensors or timers for electricity and energy-efficient windows and appliances. Whatever energy is consumed by a building is then offset by on-location energy production, such as solar panels.

Net-zero energy neighborhoods also exist. Like net-zero buildings, net-zero energy neighborhoods offset their total annual energy consumption with onsite energy production. There are a number of ways to calculate this total, but most agree with the two-fold approach of making systems and buildings as energy efficient as possible, and then producing enough renewable energy to cover the buildings’ energy needs. Some projects include covering the infrastructure of the neighborhood as well.

Energy production differs by neighborhood but almost always uses a form of renewable energy. Some generate all energy onsite, while some may supplement with offsite energy as well. Some net-zero energy neighborhoods rely on the local electric grid for energy storage, and some were designed to stand alone and function “off grid.” Energy generation can include, but is not limited to, geothermal, solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, biomass, wind, and combined heat and power.


Some research has shown that grouping sets of buildings and systems together increases the chance of achieving net zero more than through individual buildings alone.

In addition to energy-efficient buildings, net-zero energy neighborhoods have other energy reduction opportunities. Installing energy-efficient streetlights or reducing groundwater runoff can minimize impact on the local infrastructure. Transportation impacts can be offset by designing for low-impact transportation like biking and walking, or providing electric vehicle plug-in stations. There are also opportunities for affecting carbon reduction at a large scale. At the USGBC-MN’s Impact Conference in Saint Paul last month, keynote speaker Matt Grocoff talked about the dire need to also consider the true climate-related impacts of new development, such as choosing reclaimed materials and existing buildings (whose carbon impacts from manufacturing can already be accounted for) over new materials and new buildings (whose manufacture actually adds new carbon). Planning for a net-zero neighborhood can help achieve local and state energy goals and ensure we’re not moving backwards with our climate goals.

Net-zero energy neighborhoods require a lot of intentional, inclusive, and innovative planning and education but the long-term payoff can be huge. They not only reduce energy costs for inhabitants and city operators but also improve health. A net-zero energy neighborhood can also impact energy consumption behavior even beyond its own geography. Lastly, they offer an opportunity for a city to be a leader, leave behind a legacy, and open business opportunities to the outside world.


Net-zero energy projects are not new. The U.S. Army has identified net-zero energy projects as a priority to address “significant threats to our energy and water supply requirements both home and abroad.” In Executive Order 13514, Barack Obama mandated that by 2015, 100 percent of all new federal buildings must be zero-net-energy by 2030. The Geos Net Zero Energy Neighborhood in suburban Denver, Colorado will generate 100 percent of its energy from geothermal wells and photovoltaic solar panels, and at 25.2 acres, will be the largest net-zero mixed-use urban development in the United States once complete.

The Saint Paul area is a prime location for net-zero energy neighborhood development. Since Minnesota has energy goals in place (including a new solar standard) and a climate with both a heating and cooling season, there are huge opportunities for deep energy savings. Currently, there are three urban sites that are primed for this investment: the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP) in Ramsey County, Beacon Bluff on the east side of Saint Paul (the former 3M site), and the former Ford assembly plant site in Highland Park. The City of Saint Paul has been working on developing the former Ford assembly site since 2007 and the mayor has stated strongly his interest in making the project net zero.


If you want more information on net-zero energy concepts, or have ideas to make it work in Minnesota, please contact the author.


Alison Lindburg

About Alison Lindburg

Alison Lindburg is a Senior Policy Associate at non-profit organization Fresh Energy, where her work focuses on supporting and passing policies that improve energy efficiency related to buildings and the built environment. She develops positions and strategies on policy matters, assists with Fresh Energy’s legislative priorities, and develops documents to communicate policy and scientific information to policy makers and the public. Previously, Alison worked for nonprofit organization Dovetail Partners as the director of the Eco-Affordable Housing program. She has been featured in publications and media outlets, such as Minnesota Public Radio and national radio program Living the Green Life, and has written and co-authored numerous reports on green building standards, responsible materials, and opportunities in sustainability for Minnesotan communities. She holds a BA in architecture with a focus on sustainable design from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, with a minor in Spanish. She serves on the board of directors of the Minnesota Chapter of the USGBC and is a member of Minnesota GreenStar Technical Advisory Committee. Alison bikes and buses to work, loves to travel and learn new languages, and dedicates her spare time to yoga, painting, playing the piano, and brewing beer.