How ‘net-zero’ hotels could make travel more climate-friendly

From solar panels to triple-glazed windows, developers are trying to design hotels that will make more energy than they use.

The Brutalist Pirelli building was once voted the ugliest structure in Connecticut. Now the hulking 1970 mid-rise has earned a new superlative: the most energy-efficient hotel in the United States.

The Marcel—named for its celebrated modernist architect Marcel Breuer—opens in New Haven in May as an all-electric hotel that generates its own power with a rooftop solar array and solar parking canopies. It holds lithium-ion batteries that store power created during the day to use at night.

The 165-room property has already received a Passive Building certification, which means it uses 80 percent less energy than a typical U.S. hotel. The Green Building Council gave the Marcel its highest efficiency rating, LEED Platinum, making it one of about a dozen hotels in the U.S. with that designation.

If the Marcel is as energy-efficient as its developers claim, the property will be the first “net-zero” hotel in the country. While net-zero can be achieved in different ways, broadly it means that a building produces enough renewable energy to meet its own annual energy consumption requirements.

Unlike luxurious off-the-grid hotels or glamping resorts, net-zero hotels can exist at lower price points and in cities, which have stricter building codes that don’t allow for off-grid structures. Being connected to the grid means that these hotels can potentially add renewable power to the communities around them.

Installing solar panels and batteries costs more than conventional construction. But the travel industry’s increasing focus on climate means more net-zero hotels are coming.

“Hotels are almost the worst performers in terms of energy efficiency compared to other buildings,” says Bruce Becker, the architect and developer behind the Marcel. “But you don’t have to use fossil fuels to have a successful hotel.”

How hotels contribute to climate change

Hotels account for about one percent of global emissions, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, a number that is expected to increase as more people join the middle class and have disposable income for travel. To limit global warming to no more than the two degrees Celsius agreed upon at the Paris Climate Accords, the hospitality industry must reduce emissions by 66 percent by 2030, according to a research paper by the International Tourism Partnership.

Hotels use more energy than offices, retail, multifamily housing, and industrial manufacturing, according to an Urban Land Institute report. But hotels have different challenges than other properties. 

Many are one-off buildings, which means plans to reduce emissions have to be tailored to a singular site. The hospitality industry’s complex ownership models often mean no single party is in charge of thinking about sustainable practices. During a retrofit or renovation, concerns about disrupting the guest experience can often outweigh the mission to save energy. 

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Net-zero buildings could help the hospitality industry move beyond “greenwashing” efforts or small-scale ideas (refillable shampoo dispensers, using bath towels for more than one day) that aren’t enough to seriously reduce emissions.

The growing emphasis on combating climate change in other parts of life is influencing the hospitality industry. “It’s being pushed a lot more,” says Claire Whitely of the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance. “There expectations both from hotel guests and corporate customers.”

Some hotel brands have set company-wide net-zero goals, including Hilton, Marriott, and Accor. Sustainable Hospitality Alliance released a guide on how owners can reduce emissions when developing properties, undergoing large-scale renovations, or purchasing buildings.

Renovations, which typically happen every decade, will be a chance for almost all hotels to reconsider carbon emissions.“Those moments are opportunities to think about what technologies you can install,” Whitely says.

The pandemic and supply chain shortages have slowed hotel construction and renovations. But, Jan Freitag, the national director for hospitality market analytics at CoStar, a commercial property company, says developers are more interested than ever in net-zero hotels. The war in Ukraine—which is straining fossil fuel supplies and calling into question supporting oil-rich regimes—has added new urgency to decarbonizing.

“We knew we had to do this,” Freitag says. “Now it’s imperative.”

Greening up a hotel

At the Marcel, Becker and his team focused both on producing energy and reducing the power needed to run the hotel. Its Brutalist style helped: with so much concrete and smaller-than-usual windows, the structure keeps both heat and cool air from escaping better than, say, a glass-walled high-rise. 

The renovation included triple-glazed windows to help maintain temperatures and energy-efficient appliances for the restaurant kitchen and onsite laundry. All lighting runs via a system called power over ethernet (POE), which delivers low-voltage power.

It will take a year of measuring the building’s energy production and use before Hotel Marcel can confirm it is truly net-zero. Unlike some certifications that allow hotels to self-certify their efforts, net-zero validation comes from the New Building Institute, which will take twelve months of readouts from the solar panels and then make sure the energy created either matches or exceeds the Marcel’s energy bills.

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“There’s greenwashing in the industry,” says Becker. “This way lends itself to a rigorousness in the building process. There are a thousand things you can do to give your building a better environmental profile, but with these certifications, you have to be substantive and can’t overlook anything important.”

All this careful planning made the construction costs higher than with a conventional hotel, but Becker says the energy savings will pay for those additional costs within a few years.

Seeking more sustainable sleeps

There’s no firm count of how many net-zero hotels exist, yet. But travelers are looking for greener hotel options. According to a 2021 report by Booking.com, 81 percent of travelers surveyed say they want to stay in a sustainable accommodation in the upcoming year; 49 percent say they don’t think there are enough choices.

But there are some greener properties, with more coming. Vienna, Austria’s Boutiquehotel Stadthalle was renovated to be net-zero in 2009. Its owner, Michaela Reitterer says the timing was tough—she first went to Lehman Brothers for a loan, who told her no shortly before dissolving during the financial crisis. She eventually found a woman banker who understood her vision and secured the funds to add the solar panels and heat pumps that provide the hotel’s power.

Many net-zero properties go beyond fossil fuel-free power in their attempts to be sustainable. “To have a green building is not enough,” Reitterer says. At the Stadthalle, she serves organic food in the restaurant; ships the breakfast coffee beans in by sailboat; and sells snacks and drinks in the hotel lobby instead of via in-room minibars, which are hidden energy hogs.

Svart, due to open in 2024 in Norway’s Arctic Circle, wants to be the world’s first “net-positive” hotel by putting put more energy into the grid than it takes and using less than 85 percent of the power of a conventional hotel. This means both using solar panels and recycling heat generated at the onsite data center. 

Svart’s striking, curved building will jut out into Holandsfjorden Fjord and be constructed of structural steel and concrete, which take less energy to produce than other building materials. Its kitchen will keep food waste down with onsite organic gardens and a fish farm.

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Despite the care going into the property’s sustainability, it will still come with niceties like spa treatments and winter views of the Northern lights. “You can still have luxuries and travel without feeling guilty,” says Ivaylo Lefterov, the hotel’s development director.

Some hospitality companies are future-proofing buildings against potential climate change. That includes setting hotels further back from shorelines or riverbanks. Though guests love oceanfront property, it could be increasingly precarious in the future, according to Freitag.

“We want to have less of an impact on nature,” he says. “But nature also has an impact on us.” 

Jackie Snow is a Los Angeles-based technology and travel writer. Follow her on Instagram.

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