What's less than zero? We're not talking about the corporate income tax or the price of a foreclosed property in Seattle. In fact, sometimes less than zero can actually add up to more than zero. We're talking about something new under the sun: "zero net energy" homes, often equipped with solar power, which are designed to generate more energy than they consume.
"Picture living in a thermos bottle," says Seattle builder Doug Howland of Howland Homes. He was explaining the concept at the groundbreaking of zHome, a "zero net energy" housing development he's building outside Seattle. The idea is to insulate the house so tightly that heating and cooling requirements are drastically reduced. "Yet it stays warm or cool."
When utilities allow "net-metering," consumers can save up credits on solar power generated in the summer to power their needs in the winter, ending up with little or no utility bill or even a positive credit on next year's bill. Zero-net-energy buildings have been popping up around the U.S. in the past few years, boosted by federal efforts like the Department of Energy's "Building America" incentive program for "net-zero" homes, the goal of which is cutting American household energy use 70 percent by 2020.
Last week, the Pacific Northwest quietly gave birth to the newest incarnation of the idea in Issaquah, a formerly quaint and historic small town that now is a fast-growing suburb 15 miles from Seattle. Howland's company is the first to break ground on a multi-family development of such homes. Called "z-Home," Howland Homes' 10 attached townhouses will depend for power on an array of photovoltaic panels and ground-source heat pumps. The only other such development near completion is the Geos master-planned community outside Arvada, Colo., that dubs itself the "first fossil-free community in the U.S."
Siting a solar demonstration housing project in the cloudy, rainy "Issaquah Alps," nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains a half-hour from Seattle, might seem odd. But Seattle gets more sun than some of the prime solar-power building sites in Germany, one of the world's most prolific generators of power from the sun, says Mike Nelson, director of Washington State University's Northwest Solar Center. "In fact, Juneau, Alaska, is more akin to Germany's climate," laughs Nelson.
Surprisingly, Nelson adds — but quite scientifically, according to a recent report by the American Institute of Architects — "the Puget Sound is one of the best places to pilot zero-energy homes because the climate is so mild." What most people don't know is that photovoltaic panels work more efficiently at lower temperatures.
What wasn't surprising was to see several dozen city, county, and state officials who turned out for the groundbreaking exuding enthusiasm for the project. "This sets a new standard for renewable energy and energy efficiency," Katherine Drew, senior policy advisor to Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, told the several dozen people assembled. "These houses are about as green as you can get."
Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger touted the development's being a stone's throw from public transit (a neighborhood park-and-ride lot is across the street). The tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly Issaquah Highlands development, constructed to Built Green standards, is on one side. That, said the mayor, will save on fuel and car trips, while offering residents the ability to walk to new offices and a shopping district soon to be built.
In many respects, z-Home goes against the grain of development trends in suburban Seattle, where sprawled-out luxury mega-homes have drawn widespread protest. Rural cluster developments of "McMansions" were even the target of arsonists, when a Street of Dreams model home exhibit was burned to the ground earlier this year.
Brad Liljequist, a planner with the city of Issaquah — a partner in the project with King County, Built Green, Port Blakely Communities, and Puget Sound Energy — was one of the originators of the development. He spent time visiting another pioneering zero-energy project in Britain, BedZed (an acronym for the Beddington Zero Energy Development in Wallington, England) and was impressed by how far planners took their project, so quickly.
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