Net Zero Energy Building: How to Best Leverage Onsite Solar

42894733_mNet Zero Energy building is an up and coming trend. To be considered Net Zero, commercial buildings and homes must be built and/or restored so their annual energy consumption is equal to their annual onsite energy generation. When energy consumption and generation are equal, the building is said to be Net Zero for carbon emissions. Net Zero Energy building, also known as Zero-Carbon Building most commonly uses onsite electricity generation to offset the building’s consumption of ‘dirty’ electricity (electricity generated with fossil fuels). The cheapest way to achieve a Net Zero status is the use of solar panels.  

Correctly leveraging renewables is the key to Net Zero building. If improperly used, the project will have spent too much on electricity or natural gas mitigation strategies, such as geothermal heating and cooling, solar and wind technologies. 

Net Zero projects usually start with an energy model that is developed by carefully documenting the current state of a building (existing or to be built) and its systems. Solar should be considered as part of the first energy model and used as a benchmark to evaluate how the project will reach net zero. Depending on site conditions, adding solar may be more advantageous than focusing on building system efficiencies - or vice versa. Starting with solar in mind helps to get a sense of what is possible right at the beginning of the project. 

Here are two philosophies for using solar to achieve Net Zero, given the only remaining “dirty” consumption is electricity:

  1. Define how much solar the building can handle; whether it is a roof-mounted solar array or ground-mounted solar array, see how much energy can be generated with the given site conditions. Then any electricity savings beyond what the solar can generate will have to be attributed to other areas of the project such as building energy management software, building envelope improvements or other efficiency improvements
  2. Define how much electricity the building will consume, then offset with solar. This strategy seeks to find efficiencies in all other aspects of the project prior to approaching solar, to first and foremost mitigate solar expense but also maximize efficiencies that may be cheaper to achieve. This approach is likely better for those with budget constraints as solar is expensive compared to building envelope sealing for example. This strategy may also speak to non-profits and alike who cannot take the tax credits associated with a solar purchase. 

Along with being the lowest cost renewable energy option to offsetting electricity consumption solar can also have ancillary benefits to a Net Zero project. For example, a study done at UC San Diego found that lowered cooling costs can account for roughly a 5% discount on the solar array. The study used thermal imaging to establish that roof-mounted panels decrease the cooling load in the summer and decrease the heating load in the winter by trapping more heat below them. Another ancillary benefit is that solar panels can actually extend the roof’s usable life cycle. By blocking harmful UV rays from the sun the roof will not as often expand and contract mitigating wear and tear. 

Michigan Solar Solutions has had the privilege of working on one of the largest Net Zero projects to date in Detroit Michigan, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall 58 (IBEW 58) or, as it is now known, as the Zero Net Energy Center. Click here to read more about that project.

As Net Zero building becomes more prevalent so will the use of on and off-site renewables, knowing that there are strategies to best leverage them within your site constraints is going to be key to moving projects forward. By using the described techniques for solar integration you will save effort and expense so that you are able to deliver the most cost-effective net zero project possible.  


Michigan Solar Solutions is a commercial and residential solar installer and electrical contractor that has served the lower peninsula of Michigan since 2007. We have installed thousands of panels and have a happy customer near you, check out what our customers think of us on Guild Quality.

If you or another business is interested in pursuing a net zero energy project, click here to check out our capabilities statement with our partner firm Energy Sciences!

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John Jevahirian, Commercial Solar Consultant

Written by John Jevahirian, Commercial Solar Consultant

John graduated from Xavier University in ’17 with a degree in Sustainability; Economics and Management and a Minor in Environmental Studies. John represents MSS as a professional stakeholder in the Detroit 2030 District and as a member of the Detroit Green Task Force.

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