Net Zero Cities: High-performance districts a key tool for emissions reductions

High-performance districts have the potential to provide a win-win for developers and the communities they build in as they offer opportunities for economies of scale, cost-savings and environmental benefits. 

A high-performance district is a multi-building approach to energy management that aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions across an entire campus rather than individual buildings, Form & Flow founder Tom Hootman said Wednesday during a panel discussion at BizWest’s Net Zero Cities events. 

“They’re a real paradigm shift,” he said of the districts, which are becoming increasingly popular along the Front Range.

“One state really stands out for a lot of examples” of high-performance districts, U.S. Department of Energy’s building office advisor Sarah Zaleski said.

Local examples include the Alpine-Balsam project in Boulder, Revive Fort Collins, Fort Collins Civic Center, the National Western Center in Denver and the Denver Water campus. 

Such districts are “small enough to innovate quickly but big enough to have a meaningful impact,” Zaleski said.

And because the goal is simply carbon neutrality of the district as a whole “you can achieve net zero without every building needing to be net zero,” said Chuck Kutscher, executive director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Buildings and Thermal Systems Center. 

Dynamics of an individual district can change depending on scale of project, geography and structure of utility rates, according to Hootman.

Local building codes also play a role, he said. In Boulder, developers of high-performance districts have a bit of a head start given the city’s already progressive standards when it comes to energy efficiency. 

In Boulder, district energy systems can reduce energy use by about 14%, he said. 

The creation of a high-performance district is easier to achieve with a new development, but it’s still possible with a retrofit or infill project, Morgan Creek Ventures founder Andrew Bush said.

Retrofitted buildings often have to reduce their existing energy efficiency by 60% to 70% to achieve net zero.

The key to any project, Zaleski said, is embracing net-zero goals early in the planning process.

To help encourage these developments, NREL has developed a guide to help in master planning and a net-zero district accelerator program. 

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High-performance districts have the potential to provide a win-win for developers and the communities they build in as they offer opportunities for economies of scale, cost-savings and environmental benefits. 

A high-performance district is a multi-building approach to energy management that aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions across an entire campus rather than individual buildings, Form & Flow founder Tom Hootman said Wednesday during a panel discussion at BizWest’s Net Zero Cities events. 

“They’re a real paradigm shift,” he said of the districts, which are becoming increasingly popular along the Front Range.

“One state really stands out for a lot of examples” of high-performance districts, U.S. Department of Energy’s building office advisor Sarah Zaleski said.

Local examples include the Alpine-Balsam project in Boulder, Revive Fort Collins, Fort Collins Civic Center, the National Western Center in Denver and the Denver Water campus. 

Such districts are “small enough to innovate quickly but big enough to have a meaningful impact,” Zaleski said.

And because the goal is simply carbon neutrality of the district as a whole “you can achieve net zero without every building needing to be net zero,” said Chuck Kutscher, executive director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Buildings and Thermal Systems Center. 

Dynamics of an individual district can change depending on scale of project, geography and structure of utility rates, according to Hootman.

Local building codes also play a role, he said. In Boulder, developers of high-performance districts have a bit of a head start given the city’s already progressive standards when it comes to energy efficiency. 

In Boulder, district…