Pow­er­ing ahead of en­ergy dead­line

Builder’s homes to beat state’s ef­fi­ciency goal by a year

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By David R. Baker

Start­ing in 2020, Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials want all new houses built in the state to gen­er­ate their own so­lar power dur­ing the day and sip elec­tric­ity at night, their en­ergy use cut by highly ef­fi­cient in­su­la­tion.

Bran­don De Young fig­ures he has that dead­line beat by more than a year.

The Fresno-area de­vel­oper is build­ing an en­tire neigh­bor­hood of 36 homes ca­pa­ble of gen­er­at­ing as much en­ergy as they use in a year, a con­cept known as zero net en­ergy. De­signed with the help of an en­ergy-in­dus­try think tank, the homes won’t just meet the state’s 2020 build­ing re­quire­ments — they’ll ex­ceed them.

“This is how to ad­vance, how to change the way we build homes and bring it into the mod­ern age,” said De Young, whose fam­ily-run busi­ness, De Young Prop­er­ties, was founded 44 years ago.

The com­pany started in­clud­ing so­lar ar­rays on all of its homes more than two years ago and first tried build­ing a zero net en­ergy house in 2013. When the Cal­i­for­nia En­ergy Com­mis­sion voted this month to re­quire so­lar on al­most all new houses af­ter Jan. 1, 2020 — and upped ef­fi­ciency stan­dards for the homes them­selves — the com­pany al­ready knew how to make the new rules work.

“We in the build­ing in­dus­try have known what this up­com­ing code would re­quire for at least one or two years now, be­cause they de­velop it so far in ad­vance,” De Young said. “I don’t think builders will have a chal­lenge meet­ing it.”

But the new stan­dards come at a price. By the com­mis­sion’s es­ti­mate, they will add $9,500 to the up-front cost of a new home, at a time when many Cal­i­for­ni­ans al­ready can’t af­ford to buy. The homes will save money over time by slash­ing their own­ers’ util­ity bills, a big sell­ing point in the broil­ing Cen­tral Val­ley, but the higher ini­tial price may pose a prob­lem for builders and buy­ers alike.

“Try­ing to swal­low the pill of adding $10,000 to the cost of a home when prof­its are al­ready get­ting squeezed — that’s go­ing to be tough for a lot of builders,” De Young said.

The new neigh­bor­hood un­der con­struc­tion in Clo­vis (Fresno County), called De Young En­Vi­sion, will op­er­ate as a kind of real-world lab for the Elec­tric Power Re­search In­sti­tute.

The Palo Alto non­profit, which per­forms re­search for the util­ity in­dus­try, wanted to see what would hap­pen when an en­tire com­mu­nity is built to zero net en­ergy stan­dards. The in­sti­tute will mon­i­tor and an­a­lyze data on how much elec­tric­ity the homes pro­duce on their own and use from the grid.

“It’s sup­posed to be a snap­shot of what we’ll see in 2020, so that ev­ery­one can get pre­pared for it — home­own­ers, builders, util­i­ties,” said Ram Narayana­murthy, a tech­ni­cal ex­ec­u­tive on the in­sti­tute’s power uti­liza­tion team.

And yet, nei­ther the in­sti­tute nor the com­pany wants the neigh­bor­hood’s fu­ture res­i­dents to feel like lab rats. Although they are still un­der con­struc­tion, about three­quar­ters of the houses have al­ready been sold, De Young said, at prices rang­ing from $350,000 to $450,000. The first of them should be ready for oc­cu­pancy in the third quar­ter of this year.

“The big­gest thing is to make sure that the home­own­ers don’t feel like they’re in an ex­per­i­ment,” Narayana­murthy said. “This is go­ing to be their home.”

The En­ergy Com­mis­sion’s new stan­dards have been widely em­braced by de­vel­op­ers, so­lar com­pa­nies and re­new­able power ad­vo­cates, who see in them a po­tent way to fight cli­mate change. Build­ings rep­re­sent Cal­i­for­nia’s sec­ond-largest source of green­house gas emis­sions, be­hind only trans­porta­tion, when the elec­tric­ity they use is fac­tored in.

And yet some crit­ics have ques­tioned the wis­dom of re­quir­ing a spe­cific tech­nol­ogy — rooftop so­lar ar­rays — on al­most ev­ery new home. UC Davis en­ergy economist James Bush­nell noted that other, larger forms of so­lar gen­er­a­tion, such as large-scale pho­to­voltaic power plants that sell elec­tric­ity to util­ity com­pa­nies, are much more cost-ef­fec­tive.

While ad­vo­cates counter that home so­lar ar­rays re­duce the need for costly new in­fra­struc­ture, like elec­tric trans­mis­sion lines, the fact that peo­ple still ar­gue about the tech­nol­ogy’s full costs and ben­e­fits in­di­cates that it shouldn’t be re­quired, he said. Although the En­ergy Com­mis­sion’s new build­ing stan­dards leave some wig­gle room — for in­stance, al­low­ing a de­vel­oper to cre­ate a shared so­lar ar­ray for a neigh­bor­hood — it would still re­quire pan­els on most new sin­gle-fam­ily homes.

“If there’s room for de­bate, we shouldn’t be man­dat­ing a tech­nol­ogy,” Bush­nell said. He’s more com­fort­able with other el­e­ments of the new build­ing code that re­quire bet­ter in­su­la­tion and win­dows to keep a home’s en­ergy use low.

“Those are no-brainer choices that peo­ple would make, and we’re saving them time by man­dat­ing it,” Bush­nell said. “But rooftop so­lar doesn’t come close to that.”

En­ergy Com­mis­sion mem­bers, how­ever, felt that so­lar prices had fallen far enough in re­cent years to make the re­quire­ment cost-ef­fec­tive and were likely to fall more.

“There’s a vir­tu­ous cy­cle in all this,” said Com­mis­sioner Andrew McAl­lis­ter. “We’re at a great place in the so­lar mar­ket, and we al­ready pro­duce great build­ings in Cal­i­for­nia.”

De Young En­Vi­sion homes will fea­ture so­lar ar­rays vary­ing in size from 5 to 8.5 kilowatts. The ar­rays will come from Tesla, the elec­tric au­tomaker that bought So­larCity in 2016. Some of the homes will have bat­ter­ies, Narayana­murthy said.

None of them will use nat­u­ral gas to heat wa­ter or air, re­ly­ing in­stead on elec­tric­ity and heat pumps. Buy­ers will have the op­tion of a gas range on the stove or an elec­tric in­duc­tion cook­top, De Young said.

“It’s a great tech­nol­ogy, but we un­der­stand that not ev­ery­one knows about it,” he said. “Peo­ple love their gas cook­tops around here.”

Elim­i­nat­ing al­most all nat­u­ral gas use will al­low the homes to be more ef­fi­cient than the En­ergy Com­mis­sion’s new stan­dards re­quire. While the com­mis­sion’s stan­dards try to bal­ance out elec­tric­ity use within a home, they still al­low for nat­u­ral gas space and wa­ter heaters. They aim for zero net elec­tric­ity rather than zero net en­ergy, De Young said. The new En­Vi­sion homes shoot for the lat­ter.

He is care­ful, how­ever, not to over­promise.

Although the homes are de­signed to achieve zero net en­ergy sta­tus, whether they ac­tu­ally do so will de­pend on the peo­ple who live in them, not to men­tion the weather.

“Do they have five kids? Do they have no kids? Do they have an elec­tric ve­hi­cle? What if it’s a cloudy year?” De Young asked. “There’s a lot of fac­tors in that.”

Pho­tos by Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle

Work­ers con­struct homes at the De Young En­Vi­sion de­vel­op­ment in Clo­vis (Fresno County). The planned com­mu­nity will fea­ture 36 zero net en­ergy homes, which gen­er­ate as much elec­tric­ity as they con­sume.

So­lar pan­els on the houses, de­signed with the help of an en­er­gyin­dus­try think tank, will pro­duce the elec­tric­ity homes need.

Pho­tos by Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle

The De Young En­Vi­sion zero net en­ergy de­vel­op­ment in Clo­vis (Fresno County) is the largest of its kind in Cal­i­for­nia.

A worker helps con­struct a home in the de­vel­op­ment. Start­ing in 2020, most new Cal­i­for­nia homes will re­quire so­lar pan­els.

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