Ned Noel, associate Eau Claire city planner, admits that making the city carbon neutral by 2050 is an ambitious goal but feels steps can be taken toward a whole new energy-use outlook.

One of those steps is making newly constructed homes “net zero” — that is, buildings that have no net energy consumption by producing at least as much energy as they use.

The city held a public input meeting at Chippewa Valley Technical College’s Energy Education Center on Monday to gain input toward developing a Net Zero Energy Building Guide. About 40 people attended, including representatives from builders, Realtors, architects, small business owners and interested members of the public.

The venue was strategically selected, as the CVTC Energy Education Center was the first building in Eau Claire to be certified LEED Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council for its energy efficiency and use of renewable energy sources. But Ted Redmond, co-founder of Pale Blue Dot, a Minnesota company hired by the city to write the building guide, noted that net zero energy goes beyond LEED.

“LEED is compatible, but general, point-driven and design phase-based,” he said. “Net zero is performance based. Net zero energy is a building that gives back at least as much as it takes.”

Redmond explained that is accomplished by energy-efficient design features, construction that takes advantage of natural light, and use of renewable energy sources like geothermal, solar and wind.

“The Net Zero Coalition says the country has about 5,000 net zero energy single family homes and over 7,000 multi-family homes,” said Brian Barth, director of CVTC’s residential construction program.

Barth reviewed the energy efficient features the residential construction program builds into the home constructed by the students each year. The home completed this year is 32 percent more efficient than homes built just to code, he said. “We’re as close as we can get to net zero energy without installing solar, wind or geothermal,” Barth added.

When Redmond asked the attendees for input on the likely community receptivity and possible roadblocks to moving toward net zero energy home construction in the city, several people focused on the obvious issue of cost.

“Achieving net zero energy is not the primary driver of the cost of a home,” Redmond said.

He noted that’s still going to be location, climate, size and other traditional factors. However, the cost of a net zero home would be initially higher, said Redmond and several members of the public who spoke.

“There are going to be a lot of upfront costs, but with long-term benefits,” Barth said.

“We have to make sure the person making the initial purchase has as much information as possible,” Redmond said.

A recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit that encourages the reduced use of fossil fuels, found that the additional cost associated with building a net zero energy home is between 6.7 and 8.1 percent, according to information supplied by Noel after the meeting.

Some speakers said it would take more than a cost-benefit analysis to get the public to buy in to the concept.

“This is not just a financial decision,” said Tony Rongstad, an engineer and sustainability manager for UW-Eau Claire’s facilities. “You have to have a broader awareness in society of how individual decisions impact climate change. Upfront cost is a huge deal, but to me the bigger issue is the societal mind-change that has to take place.”

Following the 90-minute meeting, Noel said net zero energy homes would be only one part of the city strategy to meet its carbon-neutral goal by 2050. Having energy use come from renewable sources is also part of the strategy, which fits with Xcel Energy’s goal of increasing renewable sources of electric generation. The city’s net zero energy guide is expected to be completed by the end of the year, Noel said.