Even as the green building trend grows, Florida real estate
developer Richard Schackow admits he's taking a risk.
Schackow appears to be the first in the state and among the first
in the Southeast to launch a development of hyper-efficient
solar-powered "zero-energy homes." Schackow, who was planning to
break ground in May on the first two of 27 homes in centrally
located Gainesville, says he would want to live in a zero-energy
home — and he thinks like-minded buyers will give his homes
an edge in a declining real estate market.
"I am trying to beat the marketplace on something that has not yet
been successfully accomplished, which is a little bit scary," he
says. "But it's very exciting."
Zero-energy homes both conserve and generate energy, with the goal
of returning as much electricity to the grid as they use. Few
actually achieve that goal, but there are about 2,000 "near
zero-energy" homes nationally. Most are in California, where the
concept got an early lift from the state's brownouts. Those events
left many residents suspicious of the power grid and open to
alternatives. Zero-energy homes also got a boost from California's
post-brownout rebates and credits for solar cells and other
energy-saving features — features whose high cost might
otherwise prevent their adoption.
Paving the way. Zero-energy homes at Premiere Gardens — a
"solar subdivision" in Rancho Cordova, Calif. — combine
photovoltaic panels to generate electricity with an
energy-efficient enclosure to conserve energy.
"It makes the economics a little bit more attractive, especially if
you have the high utility rates they have in California," says Tim
Merrigan, senior program manager for the National Renewable Energy
California may lead, but the zero-energy concept got perhaps its
most important early boost in Florida. There, in 1998, the Florida
Solar Energy Center pioneered a near zero-energy model home in
Lakeland. Data from trials with that home have served as a
marketing tool not only for the center but also for the U.S.
Department of Energy's Building America program and the National
Renewable Energy Laboratory.
As energy prices rise, there's no question that demand for green
homes and buildings is increasing. But for southeastern builders,
whether to try "extreme green" zero-energy homes comes down to
practicality and finances.
On the practicality side, the region's hot, humid climate would
seem inimical to the concept. But Danny Parker, principal research
scientist for buildings at the Florida Solar Energy Center, argues
the contrary. He says the institute's experience with the Lakeland
home and a second-generation home in New Smyrna Beach have given
scientists a blueprint for building.
In Lakeland, scientists built two 2,425-square-foot homes, one a
standard "control" home and the other the zero-energy home. The
scientists then spent the next four years comparing the homes'
performances. The difference was impressive. Between July 2001 and
June 2002, the zero-energy home consumed only 2,150 kilowatt-hours
of utility grid power, a whopping 90% less than the 21,240
kilowatt-hours consumed by the control home.
That happened because of the zero-energy home's combination of
energy efficiency (a huge factor) and energy production
Parker explains that the average home uses at least 50
kilowatt-hours daily, while a large and expensive photovoltaic
system can generates perhaps 17 kilowatt-hours. As a result,
zero-energy homes rely on "conservation squared, generating once,"
as he puts it.
Some of the Lakeland home's efficiency upgrades are mainstays in
mainstream green homes, such as double-
glazed windows and high SEER air conditioning units. But the
zero-energy home also benefits from having all ducts built within
the home's conditioned envelope, rather than in the attic where hot
temperatures rob cooling power. The home has a highly reflective
white tile roof that has proved adept at shunting sun away. And it
has predominantly tile flooring — key in hot climates because
of the ground temperature of 68° to 70°F, often 20°
below ambient temperature.
"The average tile floor in a 2,000-square-foot house is providing
half a ton of free cooling 24 hours per day," Parker notes.
High-efficiency appliances and lighting can further reduce
electricity use. That said, there are some seemingly intractable
energy sinks — clothes dryers, for example. And modern
electronics don't help. For home entertainment, Parker says,
"things are really going in the wrong direction for zero-energy."
Computers, flat-screen televisions, and always-on technologies such
as TIVOs together sap as much power as a refrigerator.
"To do this is hard, but it can be done," Parker says of
near-zero-energy homes. "It requires a lot of attention to
Utility interactive. The photovoltaic panels (right side of the
roof) on a zero-energy home in Martin County, Fla., supply some
power back to the utility company. Last year, Florida passed an
expansive rebate program for photovoltaic cells, and other
southeastern states are expected to follow suit — measures
that will likely make the initial cost of providing energy
production to homes a bit easier to swallow.
Cost is another big issue. The Florida Solar Energy Center spent
about $23,000 on efficiency upgrades and $40,000 on solar cells for
the Lakeland home, expenses that have dropped to about $15,000 and
$30,000 today, Parker notes. Still, that's a lot to add to the
home's purchase price, he admits. Last year, however, Florida
passed an expansive rebate program for photovoltaic cells. Other
southeastern states are passing similar measures.
Tim Merrigan says the hope is that the added cost will make sense
over the long term.
"If you can make it so that your energy savings on a monthly basis
on your utility bill are less than an increased mortgage payment,
then you are cash-flow positive," he explains.
Whether zero-energy homes take off will likely depend on how much
energy costs increase. If the trend grows, it could sharply reduce
home electricity demand nationally. A 2006 report by the National
Association of Home Builders Research Center estimated that, with
continued research and development and tax credits for homeowners,
proliferation of zero-energy homes could reduce energy consumption
by single-family homes 17% by 2050. — Aaron Hoover