Builders bank on 'net-zero' homes

Are consumers willing to spend more for renewable energy?

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jun. 1, 2012

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Are consumers willing to spend more for renewable energy?

Steve Bergsman
Inman News®

Here's a term you are going to be hearing a lot of in the coming years: net-zero homes.

It sounds very earth-friendly, very progressive, very environmentally conscious. And it is, although, a true definition is somewhat vague and the actual meaning depends a lot on the homebuilder that is offering this specialized type of residence.

I'll be frank. In my naiveté, I assumed net-zero homes were totally off the grid in terms of utilizing services from public utilities, water companies and the like. In the end, it was me who was way off the grid. Net zero didn't mean anything like that.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a net-zero home is one that uses 60 to 70 percent less energy than a conventional home, with the balance of energy needs supplied by renewable technologies.

The net-zero really just applies to the electric part of your household bill and is achieved, not by using zero electricity but by the use of solar panels producing more energy than you need during the sunny, summer months and balancing the surplus against the deficit use of energy in the gloomy winter months.

Or as a Dow Chemical Co. websites states: "A net-zero home sustains itself -- energywise. That doesn't mean that is 'off the grid (apparently others were thinking the same thing as me).' Actually, it may use some energy from the local utility. But, a net-zero home generates the bulk of its own energy and makes enough extra energy to sell it back to the utility through 'net metering,' offsetting the amount purchased."

Don't get me wrong, I think the net-zero home is a concept well worth our involvement and investment, but most people just don't understand what that means.

Shea Homes of Walnut, Calif., has been experimenting with net-zero homes since the 1990s, and its Scripps Ranch, Calif., project with 300 net-zero homes is probably the most studied subdivision by academics. This year, the company announced all homes in its "active lifestyle" communities will have net-zero homes.

"What we have done is made net zero a standard," said Rick Andreen, president of Shea Homes Active Lifestyle Communities. "It's no longer an option. If you don't want a net-zero home, you better go buy from D.R. Horton. That's how committed we are in doing this."

What does it mean to buy a Shea Homes residence in one of its active lifestyle communities?

Andreen takes a step back to explain the genesis of the Shea Homes program. "What we found out through a lot of research is that customers' biggest angst has to do with their electric bill," he said. "It doesn't necessarily have to do with water, trash service, or other inputs and outputs that come into and out of the home."

So it would follow suit that the company's net-zero concept, called SheaXero, means -- under normal usage -- eliminating the electricity charges in the electric bill.

"We can't eliminate all the electric charges because the electric company provides the services of having the lines run to your house and maintaining them," Andreen said.

There is also a gas bill.

"We include in our homes a standard electric range, but a lot of people still want to cook with gas, so they remove the electric range," he said. "It's cheap to cook with gas, but some energy is used. The same with water heaters, which, to this day, are electrically inefficient, so we continue to serve the water heaters with gas until we find heating water efficiencies in the electric system."

Also rolling out net-zero homes is KB Home of Los Angeles, which is offering a concept called ZeroHouse 2.0.

KB Home's first ZeroHouse 2.0 models were offered in the Sun Belt cities of Tampa, San Antonio and Austin, and included solar power systems and building techniques and features that enhance "efficiency well beyond KB Homes' Energy Start qualified standards," according to the company.

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1. ai said... on Jun 25, 2012 at 09:22AM

“you need look no further than 4th & Brown Streets for a great example of innovative Net Zero construction by Nexus EnergyHomes. read about it here:”


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