Net-Zero Energy Homes Net Big Benefits

December 8, 2014 | By

It was inevitable that Joseph Emerson’s lifetime spent working in goodwill — from serving in the Peace Corps in India to being a middle school teacher and a professional nutritionist — would lead him to his latest role as an advocate for net-zero energy homes.

These homes, which get their moniker from producing as much energy as they consume through a system of energy-efficient technology, bear a striking resemblance to an agricultural community of Sirwar, in the Indian state Karnataka, where Emerson did his Peace Corps service.

“I saw people who were living in mud huts that were very energy efficient, and these people saved and used everything,” says Emerson. “It was a natural ecological balance in people’s lives.”

Now as the co-head of ZeroHomes.org, a nonprofit based in Bend, OR that advocates for net-zero energy homes, Emerson believes that living in these homes is now more affordable and beneficial — both for the environment and your wallet — than ever before.

“Some of the innovators just threw money [at these homes] and put in geothermal heating and radiant floor heating, and they were very, very expensive homes,” says Emerson. With energy modeling for cost-effectiveness, along with tax credits, state rebates and savings from utility bills these homes have become easier to afford, he says. “And you get a more comfortable, healthier, and more durable house.”

A `Zero’ Design

A net-zero home customarily is a well-insulated home that often features triple-paned windows, LED lighting, solar photovoltaic panels, and a mini-split system that can heat and cool the entire home using very little energy.

Net-zero homes also often have foot-thick double walls “super-insulated” with low-density foam (like cellulose), which help reduce the energy needed to heat and cool the home itself. Triple-glazed windows — which include three panes of glass instead of the customary one to two panes found in regular windows — help limit heat gain or loss, while also eliminating noise pollution.

For heating and cooling, many net-zero homes use ductless air-based heat pumps (which have an outdoor compressor and an indoor air-handling unit) that circulate both warm and cold air “at a very high efficiency,” says Emerson.

Building these homes (and paying for the eco-friendly technology) can be costly — typically 5 percent to 10 percent more than building a conventional home, says Emerson. Triple-pane windows can cost upwards of $600, while ductless heat pumps can go from $2,000 and above.

Much — if not all — of the money paid upfront will eventually come back to the owner in the form of tax credits and state rebates. For instance, homeowners who generate their own electricity through their solar photovoltaic-powered system receive energy credits by way of net metering.

So if a homeowner generates more energy during the daytime than the home would normally require, net metering allows these customers to receive credits, often denominated in kilowatts per hour, that they can “bank” and use later — when the homeowner’s energy system is not producing as much energy as it requires.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says R. Carter Scott, president of Transformations, Inc., a sustainable development and building company in Townsend, MA. Homeowners “can build up the energy in the spring or summer or fall, and buy it back and use the grid as a battery — while the grid gets the energy back when it needs it the most, like in the summertime.”

A homeowner who was living in a 1,912-square-foot net-zero home that Scott designed in Devens, MA received a $700 check from the local utility company — a credit of $58 per month — for the energy the home was generating, he says.

Building `Zero Net’

In 2010, Emerson and his wife were looking to buy a home in the Bend area that was net-zero energy, but the houses he saw on his tour weren’t as energy efficient as he thought they could be. ­

“There wasn’t really any exciting home that was net-zero energy, so we built one for our second home,” says Emerson.

He and his wife also built a spec home for potential buyers and have since sold about four others. He set up ZeroHomes.org to teach the benefits of these homes, along with “information on how to do it for builders, designers, and real estate agents.”

One issue in the past for net-zero homes was who could afford to do it. Photovoltaic systems, which supply solar energy to the net-zero homes, were very pricey. The first net-zero homes that Scott built for a development in Townsend had small photovoltaic systems that would cost $23,000.

“In 2006 and 2007, we didn’t think a net-zero energy home in Massachusetts was possible without a ton of funding,” says Scott. “It wasn’t practical; it couldn’t be done.”

In 2008, a law was passed that, among other things, extended tax credits and financing to help make renewable energy more affordable. In doing so, it eliminated a $2,000 tax credit cap for solar installation in residential and commercial structures. “What that meant that what was technically possible is now financially possible,” says Scott.

There are also federal and state rebates. The solar investment tax credit offers a 30 percent tax credit to homes and businesses that use federally approved solar technologies. In Massachusetts, homeowners can get rebates from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center of up to $4,250 for using a five-kilowatt solar panel system (homeowners can also get $1,000 from the state).

Another plus: owners of energy efficient and Energy Star-rated homes showed a lower risk of mortgage default than owners of more standard homes, according to a 2013 report.

Emerson says the additional costs that come with owning and operating a net-zero home are generally paid off anywhere from 5-15 years.

He suggested that some homeowners could add that extra expense into their mortgages. The benefit of doing this, Emerson said, is that “the monthly savings on their energy bill may be greater than the amount added to their monthly mortgage payment for these energy upgrades, so that a net-zero energy home could actually cost less to own than a standard home.”

And according to his site, “if energy prices go up, the mortgage payment is fixed, and the cost of your ‘utility bill’ (which is now the cost of your energy efficient upgrades), would then be tax deductible under the mortgage interest tax deduction.”

For Scott, his company is currently planning a development on a 35-acre plot of land in Village Hill in Northampton, MA that will have 85 net-zero homes — ranging from 700 to 3,000 square feet — carrying a price tag of between $200,000 and $600,000.

While it costs just $1.43 more per square foot to build net-zero homes than it would be to build a home to code, Scott is convinced people will start to look at the long-term savings.

“Our goal is to change the way homes are built in Massachusetts,” says Scott, “and then how they are built throughout the rest of the United States.”

 

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