“Net Zero Energy” – Where to Put the Engineer’s Fee?

June 2009

Dear Friends,

I have recently helped an architect with a “Net Zero Energy” approach for an outdoor swimming pool heating system at Martha’s Vineyard, MA. I had an engaging discussion with him on the general topic of “Net Zero Energy” and overall sustainability of our living environment. Half- jokingly, he asked me the question: “Where is the fee I am paying you in this (net zero energy) equation?”

My instant answer to the question, instinctively, was to the effect that the money I earned by doing this work was nearly “Sustainability Neutral” – It did not cause any harm to the environment, except a negligible amount of “sustainability cost” such as the gasoline that got burned by driving from my office to his office to meet. It would not be far from fairness to say that the X amount of money during this transaction – my providing engineering consulting, architect paying me – is “Sustainability Neutral”.

The next transaction of this same X amount of money, however, may not be so environmentally friendly, if I am not a conscientious person: If, for example, I contribute this money to buy a cheaper, but energy inefficient home appliance, then this next transaction would be “Sustainability Negative”. If, however, I contribute the money to have a geothermal HVAC system installed for my house, then this next transaction would be “Sustainability Positive”.

Extending from this example, we can perhaps institute a sustainability tracking system for every product and service taking place on the earth with a Sustainability Index (SI), and tagging every single dollar since its birth from the Federal Reserve till the end of its life (assuming a devaluation rate of 5%, the life of a dollar is 90 years – we assume its life has ended when its value has dropped by two orders of magnitude, i.e., a dollar becomes a penny.) One would then be able to come up with the concept of “Sustainability Neutral” for the life cycle of every single dollar, defined as either the net SI being zero, or positive, for all the transactions involving a particular dollar.

In this hypothetical SI and dollar tracking system, my engineering fee as mentioned above, will then have a specific location during the whole transaction histories of the X amount of money, and hopefully you’d agree with me, its associated SI equals zero, although whether or not the life cycle SI being zero still depends on other transactions. Needless to say, to achieve “Net SI Zero” for any particular dollar, collective conscientiousness and efforts are required.

Borrowing two terms from Fluid Mechanics, the “Net Zero Energy” approach for building projects or other projects, I call it Eulerian approach; The SI and dollar tracking in my hypothesis, I call it Lagrangian approach.

Maybe in the not-so-far future, when you receive your monthly credit card statement, besides the dollar amount column, you see a new column called “SI”:

Solar PV panels, SI = 500;

Gasoline at Shell, SI = -1000;

Bertucci’s Restaurant: SI = 0;

George Hu’s Engineering Fee for a Geothermal HVAC system, SI = 0;

etc, etc.

Very Truly Yours,

George Hu, PE, LEED AP, President
AWE | Air Water Energy Engineers, Inc.

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