Zero energy districts are just starting to get a foothold in the United States. Pioneering districts are identifying challenges to optimize energy use and share energy resources across buildings. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the U.S. Department of Energy are working with zero energy districts to develop solutions that are financially practical and can potentially save large amounts of energy while incorporating renewable energy resources.






Challenge: Many technologies and strategies must be proven out and integrated to achieve zero energy

Although there are many potential technologies and strategies that can help a district reach its goals, some emerging approaches need to be proven out, and all technologies and strategies must be integrated into an overall design that balances costs, benefits, and interactions.


Emerging zero energy districts are contributing valuable knowledge that will speed development and adoption of new technologies and strategies. Based on their experiences, NREL put together a master planning guide for zero energy districts.

This master planning guide is designed to promote best practices for integrated design, development, and operations.

Challenge: Lack of clarity around how multiple owners should contribute to the district

There are potentially many parties involved, such as municipalities, master developers, building tenants, and utilities. Each has different incentives and priorities.


It’s not just about technology. Clear rules and policies are needed to determine who is responsible for each aspect of the system and how decisions are made. Zero energy districts need practical governance and business models for the financing, ownership, and ongoing operations of the system.

Zero energy districts are forging new types of contracts and financing schemes to help ensure these districts can set and achieve their zero energy goals.

Challenge: Perceived risk in setting ambitious energy goals

Site owners and master planners seek to minimize risk, and adding requirements around energy efficiency can scare off potential building developers and future tenants.


Several zero energy districts are developing practical, achievable design guidelines. Such guidelines show the rewards of energy-efficient building strategies coupled with energy efficiency.

More and more cities are making renewable-energy commitments and passing building benchmarking and transparency laws that require building owners to publish their energy use numbers. Having to publish that information makes owners more likely to operate buildings efficiently.

In many cases, corporate sustainability goals motivate companies to locate in areas that help them meet these goals.

Challenge: Difficulty aligning district energy goals with utility incentives

Successful engagement with utilities differs from place to place around the country. Renewable energy can create challenges for traditional power generation models and can be difficult to integrate with existing infrastructure.


By working with utilities proactively, there are ways that both the utility and the building owner can benefit from increased harmonization of electricity demand and supply.