Jamaica’s Net Zero Energy Building: What It’s All About and Why It’s Important

Did you know that Jamaica now has the first and only Net Zero Energy Building (NZEB) in the Caribbean?

We are all concerned about energy savings and efficiency, as well as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and their impact on climate change. In 2010 buildings accounted for 32 % of total global final energy use and 19 % of energy-related GHG emissions, according to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). By the way, in Jamaica it is important to note that the bauxite/alumina sector uses the most energy.

We have also been talking a great deal about the pretty urgent task of updating our building codes in Jamaica. Debate on the Building Act 2017, which will establish a National Building Code, began in Parliament on December 1. As part of its very first CARICOM Energy Month, the Regional Project Team met on December 7 – 8 in Suriname to discuss the development of a Regional Energy Efficiency Building Code. In Jamaica, the NZEB is an important aspect of the Building Code and the project managers are working with the Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ) to have it properly incorporated into the new legislation.

So what can we do about all of this? Why, start building net zero energy buildings, of course. It just makes sense at all levels.

The Net Zero Energy Building on UWI’s Mona Campus was officially opened in October. (Photo: Build Better Jamaica)

Jamaica’s NZEB was opened on October 25 at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona campus under the auspices of the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD). I unfortunately missed this special occasion, but have finally managed to catch up with one of the two Principal Investigators in the project, Professor Tara Dasgupta, who is Emeritus Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at UWI. I learned a great deal from him, and hope you will find this interesting, too.

First of all, Professor Dasgupta explained what a NZEB is:

A Net Zero Energy Building (NZEB) also known as a Zero Net Energy (ZNE) building, is a building in which the total amount of energy used on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site . The building will, however, try to generate enough on- site energy so that it will exceed the energy demand of the building. The building could then be certified as the first Net Zero Energy Building in the region.

Professor Dasgupta notes that this prototype building in Jamaica will serve as a blueprint for a net-zero energy feature. The aim is to influence others in the regional building industry to follow the net zero energy path. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has responded with great interest, and the Manager of the CARICOM Energy Programme attended the building’s official opening. The design maximizes passive architectural strategies that take advantage of the climate and drive energy use reduction. Passive architecture is an eco-friendly concept, which uses natural sources for heating, ventilation and cooling and as little primary energy as possible.

The NZEB is becoming an important area for research and study. Here a group of visiting UTech students take notes. (Photo: Build Better Jamaica)

The NZE building will house the new Centre for Advanced Research in Renewable Energy (CARRE) – the first advanced research centre for renewable energy in the Caribbean, which will promote  research in the field of photovoltaics (solar), wind energy and energy from biomass.

Professors Anthony Clayton and Tara Dasgupta of the ISD conceptualised the project and submitted it to the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Approval for the funding came in 2011. The Regional Headquarters at UWI then took over the project’s administration. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) provided technical assistance. The design took over two years, and construction began in 2016. Professor Dasgupta noted that the original “truly ambitious” design had to be modified to fit the budget. In the end, it was a 2,500 square foot building.

The NZEB was the result of a number of partnerships. The stakeholders who committed in-kind contributions to the project were:

  • The University of the West Indies (UWI)
  • The University of Technology (UTech)
  • The Scientific Research Council of Jamaica (SRC)
  • Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS)
  • Jamaica Institution of Engineers (JIE)
  • Jamaican Institute of Architects (JIA)
  • Office of Disaster Preparedness & Emergency Management (ODPEM)
  • Caribbean Academy of Sciences, Jamaica
  • National Housing Trust (NHT).

I asked Professor Dasgupta whether it was more important to have these buildings in a tropical climate; he said there was no difference, pointing out that many countries in cooler climes are also energetically pursuing the net zero energy model. There is no doubt, though that for countries like Jamaica (and most other Caribbean countries), which are heavily dependent on imported fossil fuels, it really is important to move towards energy efficiency and savings – for the sake of the economy. “NZEBs and the retrofitting of existing buildings are the only solution to increase energy efficiencies by up to 50%,” the Professor emphasised.

Dr. Andrew Wheatley, Minister of Science, Energy and Technology, has a chat with Professor Tara Dasgupta at the official opening of the Net Zero Energy Building. (Photo: Build Better Jamaica)

Nevertheless, the NZEB and its associated building retrofitting concept will have a tremendous impact on Jamaica’s climate change mitigation efforts, Professor Dasgupta believes. He explains further:

Our building has shown that it is now technically feasible to construct buildings with net zero energy demand. This involves a combination of very high levels of energy efficiency with photovoltaics and other energy-generating technologies used to meet residual demand, using smart grid (with a reversible meter) as back-up. Very significant efficiency gains can be made by introducing LED lighting and advanced appliances can now reduce consumption by over 90%, and energy efficient air conditioning units offer a highly cost-effective solution to humid, tropical climates.

Professor Dasgupta is disappointed at the lack of interest from the private sector – it’s “unfortunate,” he says. He also has other concerns, citing an “economic disconnect” between architects, builders and purchasers. For example, builders have little encouragement to construct efficient buildings if the benefits largely accrue to the occupants. At the same time, there is a “fragmentation of the building process,” he notes. There is little incentive to integrate different building functions (planning, engineering, architecture, energy systems, use patterns and so on), which will lead to greater efficiencies. There are low levels of awareness and technical knowledge in terms of opportunities for cost-effective improvements.

As a result, architects under-specify and builders under-invest in energy-saving designs and materials, says Professor Dasgupta. He adds that there are solutions to this disconnect: “This market failure can be solved; the solution will require a comprehensive set of building solutions and incentives for innovation, awareness-raising measures, proper standards and rating systems, and various forms of market suasion, such as energy pricing and tax incentives for relevant investments.” One hopes that closer collaboration among stakeholders, heightened public education and awareness, and a more forward-thinking approach will add more zest and vigor to the process.

Ann Hodges of the Jamaica Institute of Architects chats with Policy Consultant Keroma Bernard. Part of the NZE Building Project is the development of a National Policy and Plan for retrofitting existing buildings and the development of NZEB in Jamaica.
The success of the National Policy and Plan for retrofitting existing buildings and development of NZEB in Jamaica relies on sustained coordination among government, private sector and professional agencies. (Photo: Build Better Jamaica)

One thing is for sure: Jamaica’s private sector needs to come on board, as soon as possible. Doesn’t this make good business sense, in the medium and long term in particular? What are we waiting for? Think of the economies you can make, members of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica – and you would be saving the planet, too! Do we really want to cling to expensive fossil fuels for decades to come? If that is the case, we do have problems.

Meanwhile, we await the rollout of public education programmes on net zero energy next year. There is much promise in this project and the important concepts it embraces. I hope it will be discussed – and implemented – in years to come, and starting now. The time for talks and photo-ops is past.  The NZEB is a great start, as is the recently signed Energy Management and Efficiency Program with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), through which thirty government-owned buildings will be retrofitted & LED lighting installed in another 50 structures in Jamaica.

Let’s move forward boldly into the future! Many thanks to Professor Dasgupta for talking to me.

For further information on the Net Zero Energy Building, visit their website. Tel: 977-7764. Email: buildbetterja@gmail.com. They are also on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter @buildbetterja.

Dr. David Smith of the Institute of Sustainable Development (right) greets CEO of the Jamaica Public Service Company Emanuel DaRosa at the official opening of the NZEB. In the background are Professors Ronald Young (left) and Anthony Clayton. (Photo: Build Better Jamaica)






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