We sure had some bam with our breakfast last Wednesday! On February 22nd, our team was delighted to convene a select group of Omaha leaders for a breakfast discussion on a leading-edge sustainability topic: net zero emissions.

The breakfast event was the first in a quarterly series of thought leadership forums we are hosting under the name “Green, Eggs and Bam!” Future topics will likely include sustainable transportation systems, waste reduction, biomimicry, resiliency planning and other cutting-edge sustainability topics. Check out the video highlights of the event here, and the full hour-long presentation here.

We initiated the Green, Eggs & Bam! series after contemplating how we can move sustainability initiatives forward in the Omaha region. As my colleague and Managing Principal Craig Moody explained, “As a consulting business, most of what we do is through our clients. This time we wanted to independently bring together the right people in the room to see what sparks we could generate to move net zero emissions forward in our community.”

We noted an important distinction between net zero energy and net zero emissions:

  • Net zero energy refers to a single building that is highly energy efficient and produces as much clean renewable energy onsite as it consumes over the course of a year.
  • Net zero emissions buildings are ultra-energy efficient and produce as much clean renewable energy onsite or offsite as they consume over the course of a year.

Here in Omaha, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (our client) recently announced a goal to achieve net zero emissions by 2030. Already, they have implemented aggressive energy-saving efforts that have saved them thousands of tons of CO2 emissions, millions of dollars, and aligned with their public health mission. Ken Hansen, Associate Vice-Chancellor of Facilities Management & Planning at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, described how their efforts led to an impressive 25% reduction in energy usage in just five years—and a whopping corresponding savings of $10 million. (We had a little bit to do with this success.)

Countryside Community Church (also our client) plans to build a net zero emissions church building to align with their faith and core values. Countryside is the Christian partner in the new Tri-Faith Initiative, which will bring together a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue and the church on the same Omaha campus in 2018.

Senior Pastor Eric Elnes described the process the congregation went through as they reckoned with the environmental urgency of our time. The result was they decided to significantly expand their ministry around sustainability issues. And that dovetailed with the opportunity to build a new church on the Tri-Faith campus.

“We began to look at how far we could go to make our building sustainable,” Elnes explained. “We realized it was actually achievable to create a net zero building, maybe even a net positive building. And it was amazing what happened once we realized that was actually achievable; people just instantly kind of got it. They said, wait a minute, if we go net zero, or even net positive, suddenly our building is actually a mirror reflection of our theology and our beliefs: you give back to the world, you don’t take from it.”

There was a palpable sense of excitement in the room as guests shared their passion for bringing Omaha forward along these lines and their willingness to collaborate with one another to make it happen.

Mike McMeekin, president of Lamp, Rynearson & Associates, noted that in 2010 the city of Omaha adopted the Environmental Element to its comprehensive master plan, which set out broad energy and emissions goals such as meeting the goal of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2030 Challenge to achieve carbon-neutral buildings by 2030. However, this and many other energy-related goals and strategies from the Environmental Element have lacked leadership toward implementation.

Several attendees noted that the Midtown 2050 effort might present a unique and timely opportunity to create a net zero emissions district. Midtown 2050 is a nonprofit development corporation whose mission is to coordinate and accelerate the next phase of midtown Omaha’s revitalization and progression into a dynamic, transit-oriented urban community.

Sarah Gudeman from Morrissey Engineering noted how important it is to not just focus on a particular building, but on district and regional levels to take advantage of shared renewable generation resources. Zero Emissions Districts provide many more opportunities for achieving net zero energy than a single building.

OPPD is a critical partner for its customers to achieve net zero emissions. By 2018, OPPD will have over 30% of its energy coming from renewable, emission-free sources and according to their Integrated Resource Plan, OPPD will achieve 50% renewable energy by 2023.

The issue of cost for net zero improvements was raised. Ken Hansen noted that the Medical Center has been able to take advantage of federal grant funding in their renovations, he also made it clear that the financial case is extraordinarily strong even without any grant funding as part of the equation. He noted that energy efficiency improvements pay for themselves over a short period of time and joked at the fondness he has won from his Chief Financial Officer.

Attendees noted that strategic risk-taking is a necessary component of achieving zero net emissions. My colleague Daniel Lawse, Chief Century Thinker here at Verdis Group elaborated, “This is a rapidly changing environment in which all of us need to be innovating. We should embrace the concept of ‘failing fast’ in order to learn quickly and create the sustainable future we need. We don’t have time to wait,” he added. “If we don’t build zero-emissions buildings and districts, we lock in current energy and emissions patterns for the lifespan of a building: 80-120 years. On the other hand, if we get this right, we can change the world.”

Watch the full presentation here.

It was a heck of a breakfast. And no one seemed to mind that the eggs were not actually green.

Stay tuned to hear about our next forum tentatively planned for May 2017.

To find out more about how Verdis Group can help you achieve net zero emissions, drop us a line at craig@verdisgroup.com. Or give us a call at 402-681–9458.