The future is now
EDITOR'S NOTE: Making our homes more energy efficient shields us from rising energy costs. It stabilizes the state's energy supply.
Today, the focus shifts to a new development of zero-energy homes under construction off Farmington Road.
A net zero-energy home. It sounds like some mansion of the future, where a talking computer controls the lights and temperature, and even the dog house has solar panels.
But they're being built today, along Farmington Road east of Highway 99. And you won't see lots of gadgets and gizmos on the walls - these are regular homes where regular families should enjoy an irregularly small electric bill.
The 22 modular homes by Visionary Home Builders will be Stockton's first net zero-energy development. Each year, the all-electric houses should both create and conserve almost exactly as much energy as their owners will use.
Across California, energy-efficiency efforts have shifted toward retrofitting existing homes, including thousands in Stockton.
But when building picks up again, how we construct new homes will also be paramount.
It is California's goal, in fact, that all new residential construction should be net zero-energy by 2020, followed by commercial construction in 2030.
But there's a reason that's referred to as the "big, bold goal."
"When someone said this four years ago, people were saying, 'You've got to be kidding.' Now some production builders are getting into the market," said Mike Hodgson, president of the Stockton-based energy consulting firm ConSol, which helped pencil out the numbers for Visionary's Tierra del Sol development.
But, Hodgson added, "The industry's view of net-zero homes today is it probably costs about $50,000 to $70,000 premium. In today's market that's just unacceptable."
The nonprofit Visionary is giving it a try, albeit on a relatively small scale.
Its net zero-energy 1,268-square-foot homes were actually built in a Sacramento warehouse by ZETA, a company that specializes in zero-energy.
The homes were trucked down to Stockton and placed atop concrete pads at the new Tierra del Sol development. Twelve have been installed and 10 more are coming.
They'll be sold to qualifying lower-income residents - precisely those who could benefit the most from near-zero electric bills.
"This is where the state of California is going," said Visionary CEO Carol Ornelas, who led a group of Realtors through the first finished house last week.
You don't just throw together a zero-energy home. Every detail, every potential kilowatt-hour of electricity, had to be carefully considered by the builders and energy consultants.
Here's their secret: Instead of throwing massive, expensive solar panels on the roof to offset wasteful energy use in the home, the designers looked for a compromise. They installed smaller panels to increase each home's energy supply, while reducing demand with energy-star appliances, insulation, triple-pane windows and other features.
Where increased supply and decreased demand meet, there you find that elusive "zero-energy."
On any given day, of course, these homes might create more energy than their owners use. Or vice versa. That's why it's "net" zero-energy - success is measured over the course of an entire year.
Success also depends on the habits of the homeowner. As Hodgson joked, these homes are zero-energy "as long as we don't let people live in them."
While they probably shouldn't leave every light on in the house or crank up their air conditioners in April, neither are owners going to have to shiver away all winter to meet that zero-energy goal, said Andrew Silverman, vice president of project development for ZETA.
"You never want it to feel uncomfortable," he said. "Everything will feel as it should."
Few and far between
Zero-energy homes aren't unheard of in Stockton or anywhere else. But most have been built by single individuals, as opposed to production builders.
Nationally, only in the last several years have some larger builders moved in that direction.
New Mexico-based Artistic Homes was one of the first builders in the United States to offer zero-energy construction as an optional upgrade, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The extra cost was estimated at $42,000 to $62,000, although the developer says the cost is substantially lower when incentives and tax credits are applied.
"It's a very expensive proposition," said John Beckman, CEO of the Building Industry Association of the Delta. "I don't know the actual price tag."
While net zero is a nice idea, Beckman said, it's important to remember that new homes in Stockton are already consuming about 25 percent less energy than homes built just 10 years ago.
The California Energy Commission argues that while it might be difficult for builders to accept the initial cost of improved efficiency, those costs are "completely justified" based on the savings that homeowners will enjoy.
The commission says it's possible to make new homes 50 percent to 70 percent more energy efficient without sacrificing the comfort of people who live in them. Zero-energy homes are also considered an important part of California's mandatory greenhouse gas reduction measures.
Builders' shifting strategies can be attributed to the housing market collapse that began in 2007, Silverman said.
Until that time, there was no reason to change.
"Now you're seeing opportunities for new and different thinking," Silverman said.
Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his blog at recordnet.com/breitlerblog.