No longer is energy consumption the primary basis for modeling solar projects, says Christopher Schaffner, instructor of HeatSpring’s Energy Modeling in EQuest course. More and more, the focus is on modeling carbon neutrality.

Certain sources of energy have a lower carbon impact, and modeling software can track this impact, says Schaffner, founder of The Green Engineer.

For example, one campus climate-action plan study showed that the switch from natural gas to electric heat pumps could cut carbon emissions by 50 percent, he says. This demonstrates that not all energy consumption is created equal when it comes to emissions.

Becoming carbon neutral involves eliminating carbon-producing features in buildings or, if complete elimination isn’t possible, balancing these emissions with renewables – either onsite or offsite – or with carbon offsets. Offsets might represent the impact of planting trees or funding carbon projects that lead to emission prevention.

Look Who’s Embracing the Carbon Neutral Trend

More and more, building owners, cities and institutions are embracing the carbon neutral trend, says Schaffner, who took part in a Massachusetts task force to create a 2030 carbon plan for the state.

Boston is just one of the cities to announce new goals to achieve carbon neutrality with its “Carbon Free Boston” initiative. The project aims to achieve full carbon neutrality by 2050. The city is partnering with the Green Ribbon Commission as well as Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy to help the city update its Climate Action Plan.

The First University to Become Carbon Neutral

Recently, American University became the first university in the United States to reach carbon neutrality two years ahead of the school’s 2020 target and only eight years after setting the goal in 2010.

The university reduced emissions by creating a solar farm that generates half of the institution’s electricity, with the other half coming from renewable energy credits.

In addition, in September 2018, a group of 19 countries -12 of them European – launched the Carbon Neutrality Coalition. They agreed to develop strategies by the year 2020 aimed at becoming completely carbon neutral by the year 2050. The Carbon Neutrality Commission was first announced at the One Planet summit in Paris and had four new countries added this year – Canada, Spain, The United Kingdom and Denmark. 

For initiatives like these, energy modeling can be an essential tool because it gives engineers and architects the ability to forecast how building factors such as types of insulation and shade can change a building’s carbon footprint. It even allows users to forecast weather patterns in different areas of the world and run their building models against these patterns, which can take into account a project’s effects on global warming.

Creating Carbon-Neutral Communities

One new concept that Schaffner focuses on is creating carbon-neutral communities. For example, he’s working on a 100,000-square-foot school in Lexington, Mass. whose energy consumption will be offset by a large solar array located at a transfer station.

“In Massachusetts, you can do virtual net metering; the town of Lexington gets a bill from the electric utility, and excess production at one site gets credited to consumption at another site,” he explains.

Working on such projects, not only can Schaffner model the effects of global warming; he can help create innovative examples–like Lexington’s project–that inspire others to take action.