Bioenergy, Blogs, Project Development, Solar, Wind Power

Net-zero Energy Low-income Housing Development Raises Important Questions

I have written before about my interest in green building, which of course includes energy efficiency and renewable energy.  That’s why when news about new sustainable communities being built in the U.S. floats across my desk I always check it out. 

A new green community, where? What green attributes will it have?  How efficient will it be?

So while I was happy to read the announcement about the new 100 percent green community being constructed in Jerseyville, Illinois, I was confused by the choice of a few of the renewable energy technologies that are going into the project.  

The developer, Capstone Development Group of St Louis, MO aims to build 32 3-bedroom, 2-bath single-family homes that require virtually no fossil fuels for electricity or heat.  The homes will have 7.35-kW SolarWorld solar systems on their back roofs (see image) and Urban Green Energy 1-kW vertical axis wind turbines will be installed on the roofs of their attached garages.   Small wind turbines will also dot the streets of the neighborhood, which is being constructed on an old cornfield. The homes are expected to receive a LEED platinum rating.  Homes will be connected to the grid and the developer states in a press release that residents may end up with virtually no utility bills due to the renewable energy that will be in use on the homes.

That press release says there will also be “a separate building for a clubhouse/resource center, community room with kitchenette and bathroom, conference room, computer lab, property manager’s office and storage room. The site will be landscaped with native plants to reduce water usage and will include a state-of-the art playground.”

The streetlights will be powered by solar and wind.  

“They [Residents] won’t have a heating bill, and when they get their electric bill it is more likely to be credit instead of a cost. Green technology will truly make a more affordable and more sustainable life for everyone in the community,” Capstone president Bill Luchini said.

The homes are aimed at families that earn less than $41,000 per year.  Families who qualify will rent them for $590 per month and can work toward buying them outright. 

Home prices like that counteract the claims of skeptics who repeat that renewable energy is not affordable nor will it ever be.  And while installing solar energy is expensive, costs are dropping rapidly.  Even though these systems are being made possible through layer upon layer of local, state, and federal financing, the fact is that this affordable housing development will be equipped with renewable energy systems. That means that dozens of families for whom renewable energy was previously out of the question will now be able to use it in their everyday lives.  The neighborhood could serve as a model for future development. ::continue::

Brian Zises, spokesperson for the project, explained that what is unique about this project is that Capstone accessed much of the project funding through federal and state low-income housing tax credits, private equity and state trust funds all set up for low-income families.  “The developer actually leveraged 6-8 different layers of funding to make the project work,” Zises said.  And while of course renewable energy tax credits factored in there, the lion’s share of dollars really came from the low-income side of the equation.

Shouldn’t Public Funds Be Used Wisely?

Electric heat powered by PV?  Rooftop vertical axis wind turbines? Those technologies didn’t seem sustainable to me.  I asked Brian Zises why the developer didn’t consider solar hot water and he told me that the numbers didn’t pencil out.  He said that using PV for electric heat and hot water was the most cost effective use of technology in this case. 

I also spoke with Jason LeFleur who is a project manager with the Alliance for Environmental Sustainability.  The alliance will be doing third-party validation of the homes to make sure they meet the criteria for LEED certification. LeFleur was familiar with the project and explained to me that the homes will also be using highly efficient heat pumps, which may help to offset the heating load.  The air-source heat pumps that will be installed in each home have a heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF) of 8.2, and will provide both cooling and heating for the homes. “These are much more efficient than typical electric resistance heaters,” said LeFleur.

Because the building envelope will be so tight and with the use of the highly efficient heat pumps, LeFleur believes that the PV system will not be overtaxed for heating and cooling. 

Of course the proof is in the pudding and LeFleur indicated that he looks forward to testing the project once it is complete to see if it all works as expected.  Since the first building is expected to be ready in the winter, during heating season, LeFleur said his organization would be able to see right away how things are working.

In terms of the vertical axis wind turbines, which have been widely criticized by readers of in the past a well as experts in the wind industry, LeFleur echoed my skepticism.  He said that he looks forward to evaluating their performance once the houses are built.

Which is fine, but still.  Why the developer is choosing to spend public dollars on rooftop vertical axis wind turbines instead of solar hot water systems for each and every home is not something I understand.  Solar thermal systems, some argue, are more cost effective than even solar PV.  (See a great discussion of this topic here.) And if you are going for net-zero energy building and using public money, shouldn’t you use the cheapest, most effective technology available?  Brian Zises maintains that Capstone is developing the project in the most cost-effective way possible.

I also pointed out that in the rendering, the PV panels appear to be facing in two different directions. Zises told me that 2 of the homes will have panels that face south and the rest, 30 more, will have panels that face either east or west but will have additional panels to make up for any losses in electrical output.   Again, I wonder if that is the most efficient use of public dollars.

Now look, I’ve been around long enough to know that everything that the developer is stating now might not play out as planned.  I’ve seen big claims before about affordable renewable energy projects that end up costing a lot more in the end than the developer had projected. 

Case in point, there is a beautiful LEED-certified neighborhood near me that the developers really wanted to keep affordable but just couldn’t do it after the final bills were tallied.  Building costs were too high when it was constructed, as were the costs associated with the biomass central boiler and district heating system that it uses. Then again, that development didn’t use public money.

But building costs have fallen in the past year and renewable energy costs have dropped since that neighborhood was completed.  And so maybe, just maybe, this net-zero energy building project will work as planned and 32 lucky families will get to live in a state-of-the-art neighborhood powered entirely by wind and solar.  The developer expects the first housing unit to be completed before the end of 2010. 

There is no question in my mind that net-zero energy building will soon become commonplace in the U.S.  My concern is that if we are looking to validate renewable energy, we need to make sure that the claims we make about the technology ring true in the end. Will this really be constructed affordably?  Will residents really have no utility bills?  Will the PV and small wind systems be able to heat, cool, and otherwise power the entire home?  

We’ll see.