Researchers at the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are transforming the way the world uses energy—and those transformations become apparent the moment one sets foot on the NREL campus in Golden, Colorado. Here, research teams have applied their expertise to develop office and laboratory spaces that also serve as demonstrations for how high-performance, sustainable buildings and campuses should be designed, constructed, and operated.

Beyond LEED — The Net-Zero Energy Research Support Facility

As the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) celebrates the certification of three new LEED Platinum buildings, bringing the total number of Platinum certified buildings on its campus to six, another important milestone on NREL's sustainable campus was also achieved: NREL's Research Support Facility (RSF) recently completed a verified one year of performance as a net-zero energy building.

A net-zero energy building is one that, over the course of a full year, produces more energy than it consumes.

The RSF, a LEED Platinum certified 360,000-square-foot Class A office building that houses approximately 1,300 NREL and Energy Department staff as well as a data center, accomplished this through a combination of energy efficiency technologies used in the building, effective operations and management of the building, and onsite electricity generation from a 2.6-megawatt solar photovoltaic (PV) system on the roof of the building and adjacent parking areas.

"We made a commitment to design and build a building that could reach net zero in operations," NREL Senior Energy Efficiency Research Engineer Shanti Pless said. "The design-build team delivered to us a well-designed, well-engineered, and well-constructed building that was able to support that goal. With the addition of the PV system we felt that we could successfully offset all of our annual energy use. Through active energy management and real-time benchmarking tools, we're very proud that we were able to achieve this important milestone."

Like the rest of the NREL campus, the RSF was designed and built with the intention of being a model for how building projects can incorporate energy efficiency strategies and technologies, and in the case of the RSF how projects can be made to be net-zero energy ready. The NREL researchers involved in the project made it accessible to anyone by compiling and documenting their experiences in energy performance-based commercial building acquisition and the adoption of energy-saving building technologies.

"There's a growing interest in net-zero energy buildings now that it is getting more cost effective and the industry is beginning to understand it better," Pless said. "The cost of PV and energy-efficient building materials like LED lighting have come down dramatically in the last few years, and that has made the idea of building for net zero much more approachable. As a result, there is an expanding level of expertise and capability out there for delivering buildings for net-zero energy operations. This is still cutting edge, but it is scaling up and heading toward the mainstream."

NREL is a consistent leader in bringing high-performance, energy-efficient building projects to life on its campus. In 2006 NREL laid claim to having the only LEED Platinum federal building with its Science & Technology Facility. Today, LEED Platinum federal buildings are becoming commonplace, including six on the NREL campus alone. Now, NREL again demonstrates its leadership by being the home of the very first federal building verified to achieve net-zero energy performance. However, unlike a green building certification that happens once, net-zero energy is something that is ongoing and must be achieved annually.

"One of the great things about net-zero energy is that it's an operations target, not a design target, that requires ongoing management to reach from year to year," said Pless. "This keeps our building managers, engineers, and occupants constantly thinking about how we use energy and seeking ways to improve our performance. We'll need to keep doing that to assure that the building meets net-zero energy operational goals year after year. We look forward to that opportunity."