America’s First Mainstream Solar Community

The first home is now up on yet another housing development in the U.S. Yet this time, instead of a thoughtless clump of cookie-cutter dollhouses contributing to unsightly suburban sprawl and the increasingly gluttonous energy use in the U.S. – all 487 lots are reserved for off-grid solar homes.

Kingman, Arizona – September 25, 2003 [SolarAccess.com] The GreenWood Ranch Estates Community project, which just kicked off their grand opening outside of Kingman, Arizona, is the first privately-financed, off-grid solar housing development with no government funding in the U.S. The developers hope to draw in customers who are in the market for a weekend, or second home, but seek to insulate themselves from an overburdened electrical grid and the dirty fossil fuels that power it. Renewable energy technologies, the fastest growing energy industries in the world, are means for creating homes that co-exist with their environment. While it may seem a little outlandish, the developers are looking confidently to the future. “We took a chance in a development this large that’s totally solar to promote freedom from exterior influencesý.and because of the international issues surrounding energy sources,” said Doc Pethtel, founding member of GreenWood Partners. “With solar electric power, homeowners can enjoy 21st century technology and all the comforts of home without being attached to the old power grid and never-ending monthly bills.” While the homes will be built to suit based on customers’ energy needs and aesthetic desires, they all will be located on wooded, five-acre lots at the 4200-foot elevation in the high chaparral hills near Kingman, Arizona which is within a few hours drive of Phoenix, Arizona, Las Vegas, Nevada, and the Grand Canyon. The recent grand opening drew in over 230 people from at least four states, with some driving 500 miles to be there, and another 70 coming over the next two days. This grand opening couldn’t have come at a more poignant time either. “As the recent blackout showed, the grid is stretched to its limits,” said Glenn Hamer, Executive Director of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). “While most solar customers elect to remain connected to the grid, this development shows that solar energy is already cost-effective as an off-grid power source. We expect solar-powered home developments to proliferate in the years ahead.” John Balfour, President of Phoenix-based PerfectPower.Net which has been contracted to provide all of the energy systems, says that the technology is out there to change and improve the national electric grid, however there simply isn’t the money or the political will to make major needed improvements. “A lot of people want a place they can go if the grid goes down where they won’t even notice it,” Balfour said. “The recent blackout puts the delicacy and tentative nature of the grid in people’s minds. They just don’t normally think about this dinosaur that is providing them power. There is no monolithic grid out there, it has developed as a patchwork of switching and cabling. As the myth of deregulation grew, utility companies quit investing in the grid, and there is no coherent national policy that takes care of this wounded giant.” Instead of building another housing development to add increased stress on an already overloaded electrical grid, this development aims to put up over a full MW of solar by the time all the lots are filled. Each home will come standard with a 1650 watt solar photovoltaic (PV) system designed and installed by PerfectPower. The company is currently using Sharp Solar’s 165 watt panels for the homes but may opt for other models or brands as the project progresses. Balfour said the system included with each home is ideally suited for customers with very basic energy requirements, especially those who plan on using their home as a weekend getaway. People seeking full-time habitation will likely be recommended an upgrade package on the basic system. The developers and PerfectPower will work with customers to assess their anticipated energy requirements to determine if the basic system should be increased if the customers need more power. PerfectPower has already determined different packages to suit varying energy needs. The basic inverter, which converts the 1650 watts DC power from the solar panels to standard housing AC power, is an FX2024, 2000 watt model, but Balfour expects many people will opt for the next package that steps up to a 2500 watt (48 volt) inverter. The customer can then add in increments of 2000 or 2500 watts of inverter power or 660 watts of panels. Balfour said his company’s choice of Outback Power System’s inverters would facilitate any additional changes. “The reason we chose the (Outback Power System’s) technology was that at some point the developers or owners may want a mini-grid,” Balfour said. “Outback equipment is stackable, efficient, flexible and as electrical needs increase you can add the components you need without having to discard any equipment.” Homeowners can opt to add more PV capacity, inverters, more battery storage, or possibly even small wind turbines. Balfour said the local wind maps show wind resources as type 2-3 but that he suspects they average even higher between 3-4 due to the elevation and land contours. While the area is particularly well-suited for solar PV systems, wind turbines offer the advantage of often generating their maximum amount of power during weather which is less ideal for solar arrays. The developers have decided to leave the wind decision up to the individual homeowner since the solar PV arrays offer more than enough power for most applications. Some homeowners may want to be active participants in their home’s renewable energy systems, working with PerfectPower to customize the balance of system, or they can remain blissfully unaware. As with an automobile, you do not need any technical skill to own and operate your own vehicle, Balfour said. “What you end up with is simplicity and a system that is technically complex yet you don’t have to know all the details,” Balfour said. “Once it’s set up there’s not much to do besides maintain the batteries.” So how do these homes, which would start at around US$100,000, manage to provide the necessary power for the homeowners? How do they achieve their energy efficiency? It all begins with the homeowner. “Our homeowners will have all the conveniences, there’s plenty of power, but not enough to throw away,” Balfour said. “If you move to solar living and take all your bad habits with you, you quickly learn to break them. You learn there is no reason to leave a light or TV on when you’re gone.” Rooms are set up with additional switches that shut off all the power to the room for convenience, energy efficiency, and to prevent unnecessary energy drain from “vampire” appliances in what are called ghost loads such as many televisions and stereos which still use some power despite being shut off. Most of the lighting is achieved with compact fluorescents, while standard lighting is saved for the dining room where it offers a more decorative glow. The basic battery-back up system consists of 16 Interstate High Capacity UL16HC batteries rated at 415 amp/hours each. A major factor in reducing the solar electric needs of these homes is that the refrigerator, cooking and the heating system run off propane. Both propane and water would be delivered occasionally. The homes come standard with an 2000 gallon tank for the water needs, but Balfour said they would encourage people to go in on community wells to access the water table at between a couple hundred and seven hundred feet. The entire development and the ethos behind PerfectPower’s input is flexibility and based upon making choices. The homes are not locked into any particular arrangement, and neither are the homeowners. While off-grid solar homes conjure up images of ’60s flower power and leftist idealism, the developers are attracting a different crowd. The prospective customers of these homes are mostly middle, and upper middle class people. “The GreenWood customer is someone in their late 30s, to early 70s, middle, and upper middle class who wants to have a sense of energy security in a world where there is little to no security,” Balfour said. “We’re not talking about hermits and militias, and it’s not necessarily a community where your energy use is based on some ideological beliefs. It’s a paradigm breaker for development – GreenWood clearly shows that there’s a market out there for people who want this Arizona Solar lifestyle. It’s time to quit thinking of solar as the tech of the future – it’s the technology of today.” Note: The GreenWood solar community will be part of the National Solar Home Tour on Saturday and Sunday, October 4 and 5. The community’s first display home will be open both days from 12:00 noon until 5:00 p.m.
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