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.

4 thoughts on “Net Zero: Opportunities for Neighborhood Development

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Thanks for the post. I think this is good for new construction and rehab, even though I am highly skeptical of USGBC and greenwashing compared to “The Original Green” that Steve Mouzon describes. I hope we take an even broader look at the environmental impact of our land use, especially as it relates to transportation. I think a lot of LEED proponents are eager to see that (and there’s the whole LEED-ND thing that moves forward in fits and starts) but I still see far too many architects flaunting mansions or suburban curtain-wall office buildings next to parking ramps that still qualify as LEED. LEED may be good in building awareness, but the outcomes are underwhelming gizmo-green compared to the true structural change we need. So net-zero sounds great for new construction and major rehab, but the best thing we can do is to reuse and adapt existing old buildings in walkable places (especially old buildings with structural masonry and the like). I’d love to see the USGBC automatically score down based on something like a low walk score.

    1. Janne

      Matt, I think you’re confusing USGBC’s LEED tool (and a bunch of other certification programs) with the concept of sustainability.

      I don’t know anyone who is involved in a certification program who would say that certification is the end goal. Rather, certification is a tool to help the market make complicated choices more easily, and which helps the market ensure they are getting the product they want.

      If you and I were partners, and we went to an architect and say, “I want a green building,” without something like the USGBC helping clarify what that means, the architect might think “green paint!” while you think, “net zero energy!” meanwhile I’m thinking “healthy and non-toxic!” The certification program helps create a transparent set of values and expectations — and gives us a way to talk about which of those things we want to prioritize.

      Second, even if you agree on the goals, without a certification tool, there’s no way for the vast, vast majority of customers to know whether you got what you ordered. There are many aspects of sustainability that are hard to assess even for experts. These things simply cannot be evaluated by a consumer. Even the most expert consumers cannot understand and assess the performance across multiple water issues, ecology issues, building science, how to test building performance, study materials science, and many complex areas. Certification provides a standard to complete that evaluation, ensuring the customer gets the building they want.

      Certification is not the end all be all, but it is a very useful tool.

  2. Monte Castleman

    I think it’s useful to compare total energy use for each person. I drive a 13-year-old SUV, don’t turn the heat down at night, refuse to allow LED or compact fluorescent bulbs in my house, and take road and airplane trips. But I live in a modest 1100 square foot house in the inner suburbs and used to commute one suburb over before I started telecommuting. What’s my footprint compared to someone who lives in a 3000 square foot house in Otsego, commutes to a LEED building downtown and buys a new Prius every three years. Not that I’m environmentally conscious or have anything against Otsego, but I feel there is a lot of “environmental piousness” going on- people screwing in compact fluorescents in those 3000 square foot houses.

    1. Peter Bajurny

      I like to think of it as green theater (in the same way TSA is security theater). It looks green, and makes you feel green, but it’s not really in any way green. But I put CFL in all my sockets in my 950 sq ft inner city apartment, so that’s got to count for something, right?

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