Blankman said the company did not go for a net-zero building to burnish its green image, but to save money and improve profitability.

But McCormick's experience demonstrates the value of striving for energy efficiency. There are local, state and federal tax breaks for renewable energy systems and similar incentives for efficiency. The Obama administration recently sweetened the deduction for upgrading heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

Even without government subsidies, upgrades in lighting, climate control and other systems have relatively quick paybacks, Blankman said.

Still, net zero may be out of reach for many buildings. McCormick's distribution center has built-in advantages in trying to wean itself from the grid, Smith said. Its vast roof offers a lot of space for solar panels.

"As a warehouse, it probably has a fairly low energy-usage profile anyway," the Constellation executive said. "It's not like they're smelting iron."

While the national goal of achieving zero-energy buildings seems far off, Blankman said, the future is now.

"Net zero sounds like it's unicorns, this aspirational thing," he said, "that way down the road, the next generation should be net zero. We're already at that point."

McCormick's warehouse won't be Maryland's only net-zero-energy building for long. Frostburg State University is constructing a 6,300-square-foot, sustainable-energy research facility in Allegany County that is designed to be completely off the grid.

The $2.4 million structure, underwritten in large part with grants from the Department of Energy, will generate its electricity with wind turbines and solar panels. Heating and cooling will come from solar thermal and geothermal energy systems. At night and on cloudy days, its power will be supplied by fuel cells that store energy generated by sun and wind.

The main purpose of the building, said Oguz Soysal, who with his wife, Hilkat Soysal, is co-director of Frostburg's renewable energy program, is research and education. But if the grid ever goes out, he said, "we'll be an energy island in Western Maryland, a kind of Noah's ark."

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