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Net Zero Energy Building: A Review on its Global Impact

Waleed Aziz, Rafsan Ahmed Rashik, Mahmudul Alam Sakib

Mechanical and Chemical Engineering Department, Islamic University of Technology, Dhaka,

A Net Zero Energy Building (NZEB) is a residential or commercial building with greatly
reduced energy consumption by efficiency means, such that the remaining energy load can be
supplied with Renewable Energy (RE) technologies. This paper tries to explore the concept
behind NZEB and its different definitions. The life cycle costs associated with a NZEB and its
feasibility. This paper also reviews all the different NZEBs around the world and provides a
statistical analysis about their performance.

Residential and Commercial Buildings consume a great proportion of the total Electricity
produced. Almost 40% of the primary energy in the United States or Europe, and nearly 30% in
China. In Bangladesh the residential sector consumes about 47% of the total electricity
production [1]. New Buildings consume more energy than old ones, and are being built faster
than the old ones can retire. This situation leads to the rising demand for electricity in the world
and may lead to a catastrophic global energy crisis in the foreseeable future. The governments of
the world are trying to increase their electricity production using RE technologies and are also
promoting the construction of NZEBs.
From 2008, researchers from Austria, Canada, Finland, Italy, Korea, New Zealand,
Norway, Portugal, Australia, Singapore, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany,
Switzerland, United Kingdom and USA have been working together in the joint research program
Towards Net Zero Energy Solar Buildings under the umbrella of International Energy Agency
(IEA) Solar Heating and Cooling Program (SHC) Task 40 / Energy in Buildings and
Communities (EBC, formerly ECBCS) Annex 52 [2]. In 2010, the European Commission and
Parliament approved the re-form of the Directive on Energy Performance of Building [3]. The
directive requires that buildings should be Nearly Zero Energy Buildings after 2019. With this
decision, the expectation is that by 2020 energy consumption, as well as CO2-emissions are
lowered up to six percent in the whole EU. On the 30th of June 2011, the member states of the
European Union have already developed national plans for conversion to this new directive [4].
The Federal Government of Germany has well-defined in its fifth energy research program: The
long-term objective is zero emission buildings [5], England has expressed the intent: all new
homes to be zero carbon by 2016 [6] and even the USA formulate in their political agenda such


buildings as well as suitable balance ideas [7]. The Bangladesh Government has set a target to
have 3,168 MW of RE capacity installed by 2021[8].

NZEB Concept
The five main forms of energy needs in a building are: Heating, Cooling, Domestic Hot
Water, Lighting and Ventilation. The NZEB is designed in such a manner that it provides all of
these required facilities but consumes very less energy (about 70% less) compared to a standard
building constructed according to the provincial code. This can be done by energy efficient design
and using high efficiency appliances. The ideal design of the NZEB is discussed in the next
The already reduced energy which the building consumes is supplied using clean
renewable energy sources (e.g. PV Solar Modules, Wind Turbines, etc.) When the RE sources
are not able to meet the required power load (for e.g. at night, rain, snow, etc.). The NZEB has
to depend on traditional energy sources such as Gas and Electricity from the Grid. When the
NZEB produces excess energy than the required energy load. This excess energy is exported
back to the grid. It would be extremely difficult to achieve a ZEB without a connection to the
grid as on-site energy storage options are limited. For making energy balance calculations of the
NZEB, its boundaries need to be clearly defined.

Ideal Design of a NZEB

The threatening shortage of resources, climate protection and rising energy costs has
worked as a forcing function for engineers and building owners to invest in building design which
consumes the minimum amount of energy. The American Society for Heating, Refrigeration and
Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has provided us with the most efficient design of a NZEB
in their journal [9], [10], [11], [12], [13]. The design of a NZEB is divided into three separate stages.
1) Building Envelope Measures: The Building is oriented southwards to optimize natural
day lighting this means less energy used for lighting during daytime. Skylights on the roof
will facilitate daylighting. Passive solar heating in the winter and reduced heat gain
through windows in summer. Increasing the thermal resistance (R-values) of walls and
windows with enhanced insulation will result lower energy loss to the surrounding
environment, hence less energy used for heating/cooling. Using overhangs and trees for
shading the windows and to reduce amount of sunlight falling on them.
2) Energy Efficient Operations: High efficiency lighting with occupancy sensors and
daylighting controls to lowers the lighting and cooling needs. Using high efficiency
heating systems and minimizing stand-by losses. Using maximum outside air for
ventilation when outside air temperatures are mild. Using Ground Source Heat Pumps
which increases the HVAC efficiency. The efficiency of the building may be further
increased by training the building operators and occupants about the energy efficient
operation of the building.


3) Renewable Energy Sources: Solar Collectors for heating the Domestic Hot Water (DHW)
and space heating. Photovoltaic (PV) panels for generating the required electric load.
Wind Turbines within the footprint (boundary) of the building. Biomass tank to generate
Biogas on-site which can be used for heating and cooking. There may also be an option
for Geothermal Energy used for Heating.

Figure 1: Design of a NZEB [9]

This design incorporates all of the technologies required to create the ultimate NZEB as
shown in figure 1. But as great as the design seems it is virtually impossible to satisfy all the
criteria. This is because all locations do not have the required infrastructure for a wind Turbine
or a geothermal energy source. The insulating materials, occupancy sensors, high efficiency
appliances and HVAC systems are very expensive and difficult to obtain. Therefore a
compromise design structure is incorporated. The cost analysis of the NZEB is discussed in later
sections of the paper.

The concept of a NZEB may seem simple at first, but despite all the research there is no
globally accepted definition or understanding of the subject. This is because a NZEB is defined
on the basis of boundary or metric. A definition depends on the goals of the project. Different
individuals involved in the project will have different goals. For example the owner of the
building will be concerned about the annual costs of the building, the people of the Energy Board
of the country are concerned about the national energy numbers. Some people may also be
concerned about the pollution from power plants and the burning of fossil fuels. Due to the
presence of conflicting interests it becomes very difficult to define the NZEB. The NZEB is best
defined by four broad definitions [14], [15].


1) Net Zero Site Energy: This definition states that the building produces as much energy as
it uses when accounted for at the site in a year.
2) Net Zero Source Energy: This definition states that the building produces as much energy
as it uses when accounted for at the source in a year.
3) Net Zero Energy Costs: This definition states that the building receives as much financial
credit from exporting electricity as it is charged on utility bills in a year.
4) Net Zero Emissions: This definition states the building produces as much emission-free
renewable energy as it consumes from emission-producing energy sources in a year.
It is very difficult to satisfy all of the definitions. Each definitions has its respective
advantages and disadvantages which are discussed in the following sections of the paper.

Net Zero Site Energy

The total energy consumed by the building is at least equal to the energy produced on-site
in the span of a year. To achieve a net zero site energy the energy measurements are made
at the site. This makes the calculations and monitoring a lot simpler, hence implementation
is the easiest. This definition is the least affected by external factors.

Fig 2: Net Zero Site Energy

A building consumes energy in the form of two different conventional energy sources,
electricity and gas. To achieve the net zero goal the NZEB has to return the same magnitude
of energy to the grid in the form of electricity, as that is the only type of energy that can be
produced on-site. At the site one unit of electricity is equal in value to one unit of gas, but at
the source electricity is over three times as valuable. Therefore, by this definition it means
that for consuming three units of gas we need to export three units of electricity to the grid.
To produce enough electricity to offset the gas a greater surface area of PV modules is
required, which in turn increases the overall cost. But this also encourages the engineers to
construct more energy efficient designs.

Net Zero Source Energy

In this definition the energy losses associated with transmitting the energy to the building
from the building is also factored in to the calculations. This means the energy consumed at

the site is multiplies by a site-to-source conversion factor to calculate the total energy that
needs to be exported back to the grid to reach the net zero goal. P.Torcellini in his inspiring
paper about the life cycle assessment of a NZEB calculated the site-to-source conversion
factor to be 3.37 for electricity and 1.12 for gas [16]. It comparatively easier to satisfy this
definition as it can equate the values of different fuel types. This means that if the ZEB
consumes 3.37 units of gas it only needs to export 1 unit of electricity to offset the energy.
The building needs a lower surface area of PV modules, hence reduced costs. This also
inspires the consumers to switch a greater portion of their fuel to gas.

Fig 3: Net Zero Source Energy

But the site-to-source conversion factors mentioned above are only the average values.
This means that the actual site-to-source conversion factor may differ drastically from region
to region. This value may also vary with time. Therefore energy measurements and
monitoring of goals becomes much more difficult.

Net Zero Energy Costs

The cost of the total energy consumed by the building is equal to the credit received for
exporting the excess electricity in a year. This system is very easy to implement as the total
energy consumption can be measured easily from the utility bills. This is the only definition
which considers all of the utility bill (the previous definitions do not consider all definitions
leading to a lower load factor).


Fig 4: Net Zero Energy Cost

The prices of electricity, peak demand and taxes are highly volatile, which makes it
difficult for calculations. A strict demand responsive control is required to achieve the goal.
A skilled operator is required to properly manage the utility bills with the demand for
electricity. In that sense this definition is the most difficult to achieve.

Net Zero Emission

The amount of energy consumed by the NZEB from emission-producing sources is at
least equal to the amount of excess energy produced by the building from non-emissionproducing sources. If a building obtains all of its energy from a wind farm, this means that
the building does not consume any energy from emission-producing source. Therefore the
building has already achieved Net Zero Emission. The implementation of this definition is
pivoting on the geographic location of the NZEB. For instance, if the NZEB is located near a
coal-fired power plant the NZEB would need to produce a much greater amount of electricity
when compared to a NZEB near a hydroelectric power plant. There are basically no
disadvantages in this definition and is the easiest to attain compared to all other definition.
Every single NZEB constructed around the world is designed in conformance with at least
one or more of these definitions. Effectively it is most preferable to satisfy all four definitions
if possible.

Life-cycle Energy Analysis

To better understand the actual challenges involved in achieving a NZEB we need to
perform a Life-cycle Energy Analysis. A life-cycle energy analysis considers the operation
energy and the embodied energy of the building. This paper depicts the lifecycle cost and the
energy analysis of a NZEB. The analysis is performed using the simulation software
TRNSYS version 16. This paper also analyses the cost of converting a Base Case House
(BCH) to a Net Zero Energy House (NZEH). This research was conducted on a house in the
cold climate of Montreal, Quebec by Mitchell Leckner [17]. Data from this house is used to
explain the calculations.


The specifications of this BCH are:

Two-storey house
Heated floors of a total area of 210m2
No air conditioning, natural ventilation by opening windows in the warmer weathers
Electric domestic hot water Tank (DHW) used of capacity 300L
Estimated annual energy consumption = 25,600kWh

Now we need to start the conversion of the BCH to a NZEB. The following changes are:
1. Enhancing the envelope of the house to prevent energy losses and installation of
energy efficient technologies to reduce energy consumption. There was a 40%
reduction in the energy consumption, without the solar systems (The solar
technologies are added later in the analysis).
2. Installing the solar combisystems, that captures the solar energy using solar collectors
and supplies heat to the radiant floor heating system and the DHW system.
3. Addition of Sanyo HIP-200BA3 crystalline silicon photovoltaic (PV) modules for
generating the required electrical power. Each module produces 314 kWh/yr.
The three changes mentioned above are summarized in detail in Table 1. The table also
compares the different design parameters of the BCH and the NZEH. It must be noted
that the components mentioned below are not absolute and are subject to changes with the
progress of the paper.

BCH and

There are two types of solar collectors considered in this paper:

Flat plate solar collector
Evacuated tube solar collector

The fluid used in the solar collector is a 60% glycol-water system at a mass flow rate of 100 kg/h.
This fluid is used to heat the water in the Radiant Floor Heating tank (RFT) and the DHWT. The
priority is given to the RFT. Hot fluid is only supplied to the tanks if the following condition are

Glycol is hotter than the water in the tank

Temperature of the water in the tank is less than 55 degrees Celsius.
IT is the heating (winter) season.
For RFT, conditions zone temp less than 21C and heating season.

A Life cycle cost analysis considers all the costs associated over the lifetime of the products.
Determining the costs of materials and systems is a very difficult task. This is because the prices
vary greatly with time, locations, different vendors, market fluctuations, etc. In this analysis
Mitchell Leckner has tried to incorporate all the updated prices for all required materials.

Payback Time:
The payback time may be defined as the time required for the investments made in the
NZEB to be returned as revenue from the excess electricity export of the NZEB. There are two
methods used in calculating the payback time. Simple payback method, this method may be
defined as the initial cost of system installation divided by the annual cost saving. This method
does not consider the change in time value of money, interest rates, rising energy costs,
replacement costs, etc. But this is the most commonly used method and easier to implement.
A more realistic and sophisticated method which considers all of the mentioned
externalities is called as the Cumulative Cash Flow (CCF) method. But this method is very
complicated and requires rigorous calculations and computations, therefore this method is not
used as much in practical applications, only for research purposes.
Cost Calculation (without Solar Combisystem):
Initial + replacement cost of BCH = $233,000
Initial + replacement cost of NZEB (without solar combisysytem) = $267,000
Reduction in energy consumption = 11,600kWh/yr.
Financial payback time = 40 yrs.
The theoretical lifetime of the house is about 40 years. This means in the long run the changes
pay for themselves and the owner actually saves more.


Solar Combisystem:
The solar combisystem consists of two solar collectors, two hot water storage tanks with
heat exchangers [18]; one for DHW and the other one for RFT, circulating pump, piping and
insulation. The hot water storage tanks can also be heated electrically when solar thermal energy
is not available. A detailed schematic diagram of the circuit of the solar combisystem is given

Fig 5: Schematic diagram of a Solar Combisystem

The solar combisystem also includes Drain Hot Water Recovery (DHWR) pipe, which is a heat
exchanger for recovering the waste heat in the drain water and hence increasing the efficiency of
the system.
Selection of Solar Collector:
It may be true that evacuated tube solar collectors are more efficient but they also have
greater costs of installations and maintenance. The increase in efficiency is not sufficient to offset
the costs, therefore the most economic choice would be the Flat Plate Solar Collector. In the CCF
analysis it is revealed by using the evacuated tube solar collectors the payback period extends
way longer than the estimated lifetime of the NZEB of 40 years. In using the flat plate solar
collector the payback is achieved just at the lifetime of the NZEB. Therefore in case of Evacuated
tube solar collector the financial payback is never reached.

Photovoltaic Systems:
The photovoltaic system is one of the most expensive as well as the most crucial
component of the entire NZEB design. The main reason for the increased costs is due to its

installation and the recurring maintenances. The PV module is replaced after every 25 years and
the inverter is replaced after 15 years. Although the costs of the PV system are expected to drop
in the future due to improved technologies, but when factored into the CCF analysis there is no
significant change. To have greater cost effectiveness we need to reduce the number of PV
modules as much as possible.
The costs of the different combinations of solar collectors and PV module is shown in the
table below. The optimum combination is the obtained by analyzing the costs of each

Table 2: Number of Solar collectors and PV modules required to reach the NZEB goal

The lowest initial cost of $83,800 is for a combination of four solar collectors and 35.8 PV
modules. The decimal point in the number of PV modules can be acquired by using a smaller
module of lower capacity. This combination has the least energy requirements. But still has a
payback time of 77.3 years which is more than three times longer than the lifetime of the PV
The design of the building is further changed by making compromises such as using
baseboard heaters instead of radiant floor heating and reduced insulations, this reduces the
payback period to 65.3 years. This is still longer than the lifetime of the NZEB and coupled with
the low costs of electricity in Quebec, most of the building owners are discouraged to take the
first step. Hence NZEB in Quebec will only be feasible if there is a significant drop of prices of
PV system and a significant rise in cost of electricity.

Further Research on Cost Analysis

The cost analysis shown above is only pertinent for the scenario of Quebec. This section
further describes the other aspects of cost analysis in different scenarios. Anna Marszal [19] writes
in her paper that with the current price levels, it is more cost effective to invest on increasing
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efficiency rather than investing on renewable energy sources in the perspective of Denmark.
S.Deng [20] writes in his paper that more effort should be given to the calculation of conversion
factors using advanced simulation tools as these conversion factors play a vital role in the
evaluation of NZEB performance. D. Kolokotsa [21] writes in his paper that more effort should be
given towards the smart predictive controls and management schemes to improve the
performance of NZEBs.

Statistical Analysis of NZEBs around the world

The number of NZEBs is on the rise globally, there are about 152 NZEBs in the US itself
as of 2015 [22]. Tobias Weiss [23] in his extraordinary paper classifies the different types of NZEBs
and shows a statistical analysis on the performance of over 280 internationally verified NZEBs
in different regions and climates.

Fig 6: Number of NZEBs in different countries and Climates [23]

The NZEBs can be classified in three categories:
Small residential buildings
Apartment buildings
Non-residential buildings.
The small residential buildings and apartment buildings were built by focusing on resource
shortage, climate protection, rising energy costs, etc. Different enterprises and the real estate
industries built the non-residential NZEBs to improve the image of the company and to make
their company more attractive than their competitors.
Most of the completed NZEB projects are situated in the North-Westerly countries and climates.
This means that the design foe a NZEB is most suitable to thrive in warmer climates. The main
driving functions for these projects is the ease of procurement of economic resources, headstrong
technology and climate knowledge of the region. It also possible to construct NZEBs in the nonconforming climates, but greater expenditure must be spared for the cladding (envelope) for the
same amount of comfort and needs.
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The performance of the NZEBs is prominently dependent on the methods used for
increasing the overall efficiency. The most common measures of increasing the efficiency are:
advanced insulation, advanced day lighting, mechanical ventilation systems, mechanical solar
shading devices, heat recovery from drain water, high efficiency appliances, etc. These systems
not only promote the greater efficiency but greater comfort as well. The different energy saving
measures used in the distinct categories of NZEBs are given in Figure 7.

Fig 7: Energy saving measures in NZEBs [23]

To reach the NZEB goal the other aspect which is just as important is the remaining load
of energy which is generated by RE technologies. The dominant source of electricity production
in this sector is PV panels as most of the projects do not have the infrastructure for a wind turbine
or biogas plant. Due to the greater expense of PV modules most of the designs restrict the use of
PV modules only for electrical appliances. All other sources of energy consumptions are being
met with other on-site renewable energy sources such as heat pumps, solar collectors in smaller
applications and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants due to their falling prices and rising
efficiency [24]. In figure 8 the frequency of the different types of on-site RE sources are shown.

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Fig 8: Different types of RE sources used by NZEBs

NZEB in our Subcontinent:

There is only one NZEB in the South-East Asia region which is situated in New
Delhi, India. The building is named Paryavaran Bhawan and was inaugurated on the 25th of
February 2014 [25].

Fig 9: Paryavaran Bhawan

The specifications of the building are given as follows:

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Operative Ventilation by East-West orientation of the building.

The building is designed to use 75% of natural daylight to reduce energy
The entire building has an access friendly design for differently-abled people.
The building has an installed capacity 0f 930 kW

Chilled Beam system of Air Conditioning used which increases the energy
savings by 40%.
Green materials like Fly ash bricks have been used, regional building materials,
materials with high recycled content, high reflectance terrace tiles and rock
wool Insulation of outer walls.
Door frames & shutters are made from Bamboo Jute Composite material.
Hermetically sealed double glass windows made of UPVC.
Reduced water consumption by use of Low discharge water fixtures, recycling
of waste water through Sewage Treatment Plant, use of Geothermal cooling
for HVAC system, harvesting of rain water, etc.

The lack of NZEBs in our subcontinent can be attributed to the unsatisfied demand
for electricity in a large proportion of the population. This lack of electrical power turns
the focus of the governments to produce more energy rather than the better goal of save
more energy. But the inauguration of the Paryavaran Bhawan is a symbol of inspiration
for more number of NZEBs projects to be initiated in this subcontinent.

The NZEB is a decisive solution to the global energy crisis for creating a better
future. But it also suffers from limitations such as requiring extensive monitoring plans due to
inflation rates, volatile electricity prices and the high costs of producing electricity with PV
systems. This discourages most of the building owners from investing in NZEBs. By improving
the design and efficiency of the building we may be able to reduce the electricity consumed but
that does not have a significant effect on the costs. The only way to make NZEBs more feasible
is to search for new sources of RE or to reduce the costs of PV systems by refining the technology.

This paper was inspired by our Course Teacher Sayedus Salehin Lecturer, MCE
Department, IUT. We would like to thank him for his continued support and giving us the
opportunity to learn more about this amazing topic, learning about the methods of conducting
proper research and writing in a Journal. This was a truly rewarding experience.

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