Cornell’s net-zero energy building in NYC

Cornell is promoting its NYC Tech Campus “core” as a net-zero energy building: “The main educational building, a home for the Cornell and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology partnership, is being planned to harvest as much energy from the campus site as it consumes: In the parlance of energy experts, it will be ‘net-zero energy.'” [Cornell Chronicle Online, “Cornell’s planned NYC Tech Campus drives for a sustainable ‘net-zero energy’ core,” Oct. 24, 2011]

How the relatively small 150,000 square-foot academic building actually achieves this alleged net-zero energy status is really quite clever, but not because of its advanced technology, or its environmental strategies: rather, it relies on a devious slight of hand. As the first building on what will be a much larger campus, it covers multiple acres of the 10-acre site with arrays of photovoltaic solar panels, and similarly covers multiple acres of the site with geothermal bore holes. The collectors placed over the now-undeveloped site will ultimately be re-attached on the south-facing roofs of future buildings; while the site area staked out for geothermal will be unavailable for geothermal use by other buildings on the site.

In other words, the building only reaches its net-zero status by preventing all the other future buildings on the campus from achieving the same level of self-sufficiency, since these future building sites have been designated for the provision of PV-generated electricity and geothermal energy only for this first, relatively small, academic building.

It’s like arbitrarily drawing a line around all the useful renewable resources in your neighborhood and claiming them all for yourself — one neighbor’s solar collector; another’s wind turbine; someone else’s geothermal system, and so on — and all for the sole purpose of proclaiming that you’ve reached the illusive net-zero mark.

Cornell should rightly take credit for expending a great deal of resources on renewable energy for the Tech Campus. But calling this a net-zero energy building is misleading and disingenuous.

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