Working Toward Zero Energy Districts

The only way to achieve zero energy at the district scale is to start early, with a clearly articulated energy vision statement and guiding principles. The vision statement and guiding principles highlight the benefits to participating stakeholders and the community. The vision statement is the foundation of the zero energy district master plan.


Consider in Your Vision

  • What is the general description of the planned district?
  • What are the location and size of the district?
  • What are the building types and uses?
  • What are the project timeline and phasing?
  • What are the specific energy performance goals? Ideal goals are energy use intensity targets by building type, renewable energy goals, and demand-based goals, such as kilo British thermal unit per square foot for air conditioning or kilowatt per square foot for electricity.

  • What are the general goals for the district related to sustainability, resilience, equity, or economic development? How will zero energy as a target help provide a pathway to achieving those goals?
  • What are the anticipated benefits of achieving the goals?
  • What story do you want to be able to tell?

Examples from Leading Districts


Engage Stakeholders

Your master plan needs to identify stakeholders—everyone from current residents to government agencies to potential developers to future building owners and tenants—and develop an inclusive engagement plan that takes stakeholders’ needs and priorities into account.

To Consider in Your Stakeholder Engagement

  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • How can stakeholders help achieve performance goals, and how can they benefit from them?
  • How do the performance goals help the local community?

Examples from Leading Districts


Engage the Utility

Your master plan must lay out a strategy for including local utilities in your zero energy goals.

To Consider in Utility Engagement

  • Potential role for utilities
  • Financial considerations for utility interconnection
  • Incentives and pilot project opportunities
  • Opportunities for grid services
  • Access to data
  • Alignment of utility goals with district goals.

Examples from Leading Districts


Determine Financing

Your master plan must evaluate the financial implications of different design ideas. It should also identify approaches for obtaining finances.

To Consider When Determining Financing

  • Potential ownership structures
  • Conventional and alternative financing approaches
  • Economies of scale
  • Load diversity in infrastructure and equipment sizing
  • Analysis of nonenergy benefits such as resilience and economic development
  • Procurement approaches to ensure performance goals are met.

Leading Resources

  • Rocky Mountain Institute has developed a business model for zero energy districts.
  • Zero energy development Boulder Commons provides a green lease framework that could be used by zero energy districts.

Plan Your Energy Strategy

At the core of the zero energy district master plan are energy strategies that look at both the building scale and the district scale. These strategies should also consider new construction and retrofits.

To Consider in Your Energy Strategy

General strategies

  • Definitions of key terms and energy metrics being used
  • Energy modeling and analysis approaches for different district design scenarios
  • Retrofit and construction phasing strategies
  • Design guidelines and design advisory board
  • Technical considerations for utility interconnection.

Building strategies

  • Building types and sizes
  • Building efficiency levels
  • How building systems interface with district systems
  • Available roof area for solar photovoltaics
  • Solar-ready design guidelines
  • Energy storage technologies.

District strategies

  • Energy-efficiency characteristics of nonbuilding infrastructure, such as street lighting
  • District heating and cooling system opportunities
  • Shared solar photovoltaics
  • Microgrids and energy storage
  • Electric vehicle charging infrastructure and anticipated loads.

Leading Resources

Energy Analysis Tools

  • OPENSTUDIO® is a cross-platform collection of software tools that support whole-building energy modeling.
  • PVWatts estimates the energy production and energy cost of grid-connected solar energy systems throughout the world.
  • REopt Lite allows commercial building managers to look at the economic viability of grid-connected photovoltaics and battery storage.
  • The System Advisor Model is a performance and financial model designed to facilitate decision making for people involved in the renewable energy industry.

Examples from Leading Districts


Track Performance

How will you know whether you’ve met your zero energy goals? The master plan includes a framework for operations and performance tracking.

To Consider in Performance Tracking

  • Who will operate and maintain energy systems?
  • How will performance be tracked?
  • How will ongoing performance be incentivized or required?
  • How will the billing rate be structured?
  • What ongoing benchmarking will be used?