A Zero Net Carbon Building Sector in Grand Rapids

“The city of Grand Rapids is participating in a three-year project to develop a policy roadmap toward a zero net carbon building sector by 2050.

Twelve U.S. cities were selected to take part in the Zero Cities Project, a policy process informed by technical analysis that will include community collaboration and a focus on equity.

The project is meant to create a plan Grand Rapids will implement to achieve the zero net carbon goal for all buildings, even residential.

Zero net carbon buildings produce on-site, or procure, enough carbon-free renewable energy to meet the building operations’ energy consumption.

The project is a collaboration of several national organizations: Urban Sustainability Directors Network, Architecture 2030, Center for Social Inclusion, Movement Strategy Center, New Buildings Institute and Resource Media.

Using the expertise of these groups, the key goals of the three-year process are to:

  • Assess whether Grand Rapids’ current plans will meet carbon reduction goals and generate strategies to close the gaps
  • Help the city overcome identified barriers to implementing solutions and strategies
  • Develop a plan to cultivate relationships with community stakeholders key to successful implementation
  • Cultivate city and community support, educating the public about policy opportunities and stakeholder value

A major piece of the process will involve getting input from all Grand Rapids communities, particularly those who do not always have a voice in the conversation.

“How you do that is really by working with the community and making sure their voices are informing this plan and strategy,” said Christie Baumel, Zero Cities Project coordinator and strategic energy programs manager for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.

Another part of the process will include a plan for how building owners can receive benefits and incentives for choosing the path of zero carbon.

The project is in the beginning stages. Grand Rapids representatives completed a survey and had a meeting with Zero Cities in mid-December to evaluate the city’s current practices and plans before moving forward. Baumel said she was happy to learn the city has been approaching the issue from a number of areas, like economic development and outside organizations, not just the city’s sustainability department.

“I was really happy to see that they’re thinking about this through multiple lenses because that’s how we’re thinking about it,” Baumel said.

Grand Rapids has multiple initiatives that line up well with the project, which is a big reason why the city was chosen. Baumel noted the city’s effort to develop a racial equity strategy, as well as the existence of a local 2030 District chapter, dedicated to creating high-performing commercial buildings.

“We recognized there was a lot of action going on related to sustainability and community,” Baumel said.

Alison Waske Sutter, the city’s sustainability manager, who will have a major role in the process, believes the project likely will improve the city’s current programs.

“I know Grand Rapids very much wants to be on the cutting edge of sustainability,” she said. “It is so complementary around our own goals.”

The relationship between Grand Rapids and Zero Cities began when Cheri Holman, director of the Grand Rapids 2030 District, was at a conference in Denver in 2016. She heard Zero Cities representatives speak about the project, and she thought it would be beneficial to Grand Rapids.

She approached the speakers afterward to share her interest.

At that time, the slots were full with 10 cities, not including Minneapolis or Grand Rapids. There was no plan to expand, but when Holman told them where she is from, she said “their eyes widened.”

The McKnight Foundation had been interested in providing some funding to the overall project if a Midwest city was involved. After Zero Cities reached out, the foundation agreed to provide some funding. Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss approved the project, and Grand Rapids joined the fold, along with Minneapolis.

The other cities participating are Boston; Boulder, Colorado; Cambridge, Massachusetts; New York; Palo Alto, California; Phoenix; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

The cost of the full program is anticipated to be around $4 million. Contributions from individual cities have provided 25 percent of that full cost, with the Zero Cities project team seeking philanthropic support to make up the remainder of the budget.

The Wege Foundation granted $70,000, secured by Holman, to fund Grand Rapids’ participation.

Baumel said the Zero Cities Project was created to address the amount of greenhouse gas coming from cities.

Urban areas are responsible for more than 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the majority of those emissions coming from buildings. In the next two decades, the equivalent of 60 percent of the world’s current building stock will be built and rebuilt, locking in emission patterns for 80 to 120 years, the average building and infrastructure lifespan.

“We need to focus on dramatic reductions in our emissions to try to keep the world’s temperature from rising,” she said.

This is the first group of cities the project has worked with. Baumel hopes the Zero Cities team can take what they learned from the first three-year project and share the tools with another group down the line in an effort to make the greatest impact.

“Our goal really is focused on climate protection, and we are looking to … identify solutions that are very scalable to many cities.””

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