Good News Monday: Zero Energy Affordable Housing/Batteries Included
November 18, 2013
Imagine living in a house so efficient that the builder guarantees you’ll have no energy bills for the first 10 years of ownership.
Such is the promise of Houze Advanced Building Science, a real-estate company in Houston, Texas. The company is building net zero-energy homes, equipped with walls that insulate like a thermos, appliances that sip little electricity and one-of-a-kind power cells.
The houses are some of the first affordable, net energy-producing homes in the United States. And, in Houston, they’re moving in to support an otherwise underserved neighbourhood, Independence Heights.
David Goswick, founder and chief executive of Houze, came up with the idea behind the company in 2008, when the US housing market slowed to a standstill. He gathered a team to assess the needs of homebuyers of the future.
“We pushed the pause button and re-evaluated for two years. We realised that the best home investment is in efficiency first,” Goswick says. In fact, the “ze” in the company’s name refers to “zero energy”, he says, because he guarantees the homeowner won’t have to make any electricity or gas payments.
The smart thing about Houze is its proprietary residential co-generation power cell, which is about size of an exterior air-conditioning unit. The power cell uses seven different energy sources to power homes – and an entire block. It’s fuelled by natural gas and solar, and also captures heat generated onsite for heating and cooling needs.
Because the power cell produces much more energy than each house consumes, it sells excess power back to the grid. Insurance discounts of 40% further cut the costs of ownership.
The first commercial, significantly islandable (the hurdle for “microgrid” designation), solar PV and battery hybrid project in Maryland came online this October in Laurel, demonstrating the reality these post-Sandy conversations are aiming to create. While at an elevation of 200 feet and not in danger of storm surge effects, Laurel and many inland communities on the East Coast can none the less be heavily impacted by broader grid shutdowns from hurricanes and other natural or man-made disruptions.
Konterra, a real-estate developer of mixed-use, sustainable communities, recently installed 402 kilowatts of solar generation, two EV charging stations, LED parking lot lighting, and notably, battery storage capacity. The project was inaugurated with much fanfare by the likes of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) Chairman Jon Wellinghoff.
Konterra’s project brings the developer closer to its vision of sustainable, fully integrated communities. The solar installation, which supplies 20 percent of the site’s annual power, doubles as a parking canopy. Its battery banks can power a critical load of 50 kilowatts for just over four hours should grid power should go down completely, and are set to recharge during the day while the solar panels power the site. It also brings Maryland closer to its goal of reaching 20 percent in-state renewable generation by 2022. But perhaps most interestingly, the site will be using its integrated grid-connected storage to generate revenue by participating in the ancillary services market (primarily through the provision of frequency regulation, synchronized reserve, and volt-ampere reactive [VAR] compensation acquired on a cost-basis).
One of the most misunderstood aspects of Germany’s energy transition is the assumption that this is top-down mandate to adopt green energy. Nothing could be further from the truth, and one key statistic underlines this point: the major electricity generators account for just 7 per cent of the renewable energy that now makes up nearly one quarter of the county’s electricity production. The rest has come from farmers, households, communities and small business.
There is a bunch of reasons why this is so. For many, it is their dislike of nuclear. For others, it’s the opportunity of maintaining a lifestyle, finding independence, or retaining ownership of a family farm. For many it is an environmental issue, for others it is an economic one.
When the price of livestock plunged after the outbreak of “mad cow” disease, the Reinbold family in the village of Freiamt, just north of Freiburg, were worried about losing their farm which had been in the family for generations.
So they turned to biogas to generate electricity and waste heat: They now grow crops of inedible corn, grass and rye and have two small turbines that have a combined capacity of 360kW. Waste heat is fed to the school and nearby homes, the liquid waste from the biomass goes to neighbouring farms. Another turbine will provide heat for the village pool and the hostels, which are popular with hikers.
“It’s more work in summer outside in the field,” says Inge Reinbold, of the need to tend crops rather than cattle. But less work in winter. And despite the large investment, she feels she has risk-proofed the family farm. “Now we have a fixed price for 10 years,” she says. They get 10c/kWh for their biogas electricity – and three solar arrays owned by her three sons gives them a further income.
Higher up the valley, we visit the Schneider family, which has gone even further, installing a heater that uses wood chips instead of oil, and hosting two community-owned wind turbines on their property (pictured below), which features 80 dairy cows and a much admired Schnapps production facility in the basement. (You can see a video here).
Now Freiamt, a collection of five small hamlets in the foothills of the Black Forest with a total population of 4,200, provides more than 200 per cent of its electricity needs, the locals claim. Five turbines, including the two on the Schneider property, account for ¾ of this, with the rest made up from two biogas plants, 251 solar rooftops, about 150 solar thermal collectors, wood-chip heaters and four run-of-river hydros, which are coming back into vogue after a century of neglect.
The sense of independence is ingrained into the mentality. Most of the farming families were attracted to the area 500 years ago when the Monastery at St Peter, just down the road, offered freehold land to farmers who settled into the area and independence from the Dutch overlords).
“Now you see farms starting to look at battery storage,” says Erhard Shulz, the founder of the locally based Innovation Academy, and my guide for the day. “Independence is very important. That is why the families came here 500 years ago, for independence from the Dutch. Now it is for independence from the nuclear and the fossil fuel companies. This is very important.”