Their increased energy efficiency translates into a 50 to 60 percent savings on gas and electric bills.
Eve Mitchell - insideBayArea.com - July 9, 2006
Model solar home at the Avignon development under construction by Centex Homes in Pleasanton. The development is the first all-solar community to be built by Centex in Alameda County.
AS TEMPERATURES soar, many homeowners worry about high energy bills. Not John Hemingway. Hedoesn't mind getting his Pacific Gas and Electric Co. statements.
That's because the East Palo Alto resident lives in a super energy-efficient home equipped with solar photovoltaic panels on his roof that transform sunlight into electricity. During the summer months that electricity actually flows into the state's power grid.
As a result, Hemingway pays very little to keep the lights on in the four-bedroom home he shares with his wife, mother and son.
"In the summer, we get a credit (from PG&E) because we produce more than we use," said Hemingway, who moved into the house built in 2003 in the Shorebreeze development built by Palo Alto-based Clarum Homes.
Saving money on energy is "like having your dentist say you don't need a root canal - just take two aspirins, you'll be fine in the morning because we pay so little," Hemingway said with a satisfied chuckle.
Known as near zero-energy homes, these dwellings are getting built in the Bay Area, including locations in Pleasanton, San Leandro, Danville and Menlo Park. While existing homeowners have been putting solar systems on rooftops for years to reduce energy bills, the new-home industry is starting to do so too in response to consumer demand and government incentives.
But solar systems still aren't cheap, and builders are offering them using different approaches. Some builders include solar systems as standard equipment - while others offer them as an option that can add thousands of dollars to the cost of a home.
Zero-energy homes feature both roof-mounted solar photovoltaic solar systems and the latest in energy-efficient building techniques, along with products such as on-demand tankless water heaters, improved air-conditioning and heating systems, and energy-efficient appliances.
They don't actually get by with zero-energy use. But their increased energy efficiency translates into a 50 to 60 percent savings on gas and electric bills, said Rob Hammon, owner of Stockton-based ConSol, an energy-efficiency consulting firm for builders.
"We are doing that by using a combination of energy efficiency and photovoltaics (to build) a near zero-energy home," he said.
Theoretically, saving 60 percent on your energy bill could translate into a potential saving of $828 a year, based on the average PG&E bill for the Bay Area running at about $115 a month for electricity and gas.
Homeowners with solar systems connected to the state's power grid also can end up getting a credit from PG&E when they produce more electricity than they use. For example, on a hot summer day a solar system could be producing more electricity than is actually being used in the home at that time. The excess power that goes into the grid would be counted as a credit off the homeowner's electric bill.
But the tradeoff is that a zero-energy home can cost thousands of dollars more than conventional homes built to the state's current code for energy efficiency. The solar system alone can run from $15,000 to $20,000 for a new home before a state rebate brings down the cost by about one-third, according to Hammon. (For new homes, the builder applies for the rebate for the solar system; for existing homes, homeowners can apply for the rebate.)
While zero-energy homes are starting to be built in the Bay Area and other parts of California, they still account for just a sliver of new homes being built today. A revamped state program and pending legislation aim to change that (see accompanying story).
Existing homes account for most of the nearly 20,000 homes in California that have installed solar systems under the state rebate program for existing homes and new-home builders. Only about 1,600 new homes have been equipped with solar systems since the rebate program began in 1991, according to the state Energy Commission. About 155,000 single-family homes were built last year alone in California, according to the state Building Industry Association.
The 20-unit Shorebreeze development in East Palo Alto, built in 2003 with prices at the time starting at $595,000, was the first zero-energy home community in California.
Shorebreeze resident Hemingway said that while it's good to save money on energy bills, living in a house that can create energy from the sun is also a plus.
"We are sensitive to the environment energy-wise, (but) we are not on the fringe that way," he said. "So the fact that it had these features, we felt really good about it. This was frosting on the cake."
While Clarum Homes does draw buyers who are looking specifically for zero-energy homes, that's not always the case, said Nicole Gittleson, Clarum's vice president of marketing, operations and human resources.
"We have a lot of people who come by this and are very surprised and very happy we do this," she said.
Although solar homes are just a niche market right now, 92 percent of people who bought them would recommend one to a friend, according to a survey released in March by Environment California, a solar advocacy group.
The survey found that 84 percent of respondents saw solar as a selling feature if they were to sell their home. The survey also found that electric bills averaged from 30 to 75 percent less than non-solar homes. Another finding was that 53 percent of respondents bought a solar home to save money while 15 percent did so for environmental reasons.
Some builders are offering a solar package as standard equipment for a home while others offer it as an option. Solar packages usually include other energy-efficient components as well as the solar system.
In cases where the solar package is standard equipment, such as developments built by Clarum, the builder absorbs the cost, said Bernadette Del Chiaro, clean energy advocate for Environment California.
"The price is going to be the price with or without the solar system," Del Chiaro said.
But even in cases where the package is an option, it's still a good deal for the home buyer since it can result in lower energy bills, she said.
In the East Bay, KB Home is offering a zero-energy home option, priced on average at $28,000, for houses it is building at two subdivisions in the Danville area and at another already completed in Oakley. Centex Homes is building an all-zero-energy home community of 28 homes in Pleasanton. And Clarum is building more zero-energy home communities in San Leandro, Danville and Menlo Park.
Eighty percent of buyers at the Danville-area developments are taking the zero-energy option, said KB spokesman Craig LeMessurier.
Count Fairfield resident Dan Wendt in that group.
"There have been advances in solar energy - not just for providing solar for heating water but for the whole energy package," Wendt said. He wanted a zero-energy home because "the energy costs are going up and continuing to go up."
Mainly, I'd like to spend less money (for energy), but it just makes sense for the environment," said Wendt, who bought a five-bedroom house and expects to move in around the end of the year with his wife and two children.
"It has been extremely popular in Danville. The people who have purchased this (option) have been extremely excited and very knowledgeable about the option," said LeMessurier of the company's zero-energy option in the Danville-area developments. At one of the developments, the homes are priced in the mid-$800,000 to mid-$900,000 range. At the other development, homes are priced from $1.1 million $1.3 million.
But at the KB development in Oakley, where homes are priced from $500,000 to $600,000, only about 10 percent of buyers are taking the zero-energy option.
"We're testing the market to see where it works," LeMessurier said.
In Pleasanton, Centex Homes is building the Avignon development, the first all-solar community in Alameda County. Each of the 28 estate-style homes, which are priced starting at $1.5 million, will have solar photovoltaic panels along with other energy-efficient features as standard equipment.
Centex opted to build the all-solar community on a smaller development rather than a large one, said Jeff Jacobs, former director of community development for the Bay Area division of Centex Homes.
"It's the first all-solar community (in Alameda County) where a builder has committed to building every single home in that community with not just solar but all kinds of energy-efficient things we are doing," he said.
"It's a big step for Centex. Typically, our communities average 75 to 100 homes," he said. "We don't want to stumble. We want to execute at a high level."
Some critics would say that building smaller homes could also result in higher energy efficiency. But Jacobs dismisses such criticism, saying access to zero-energy homes shouldn't be linked to how much buyers pay for their homes or how big they are.
"They can minimize the impact on the state's energy needs," Jacobs said. "I think people are very excited to learn they have got all these features. It's a smart thing. We think our customers will like it."