On June 8, 2015, the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission made a bold and illustrious declaration: all new California homes would be net zero by 2020. While zero net energy homes—or ZNEs, as they’re sometimes called—have been quietly and steadily growing over the past decade, rising to an estimated 6,800 units at the end of 2015, this initiative marked the most aggressive plan of its kind to be enacted through a state utility.
It’s called the New Residential Zero Net Energy Action Plan, and it sets forth the state’s push to integrate sustainability into new building. “Zero Net Energy solutions are technically feasible, and the market is developing the talent and expertise to implement them seamlessly and cost-effectively,” California Energy Commission Commissioner Andrew McAllister said in a press release—an official recognition of the rising trend of ZNEs, now set to become much more mainstream.
What is a ZNE?
That depends on who you ask. Technically, the action plan adopted by the CPUC and the CEC only requires homes to be “ZNE ready”—so it’s possible that a building could qualify without solar or other renewables installed. The traditional definition of a net zero home is one that returns as much or more energy back to the electrical grid as it draws out—and yet, that oversimplification is akin to calling a PC just a calculator.
That’s because ZNE buildings and homes represent sophisticated achievements in architecture and technology, and have only just been made possible due to a surge in energy-efficient appliances and insulation combined with the dipping cost of solar equipment.
Just as there is no one blueprint for all homes, there is no single plan for ZNEs—net zero buildings approach the challenge of sustainably heating, cooling, and powering their interiors in their own unique ways. However, the increased interest in these structures has lead to the growth of planned net zero communities, such as West Village on the UC Davis campus or Earth Harmony Habitats in Portland, Oregon. New buyers in these types of developments can browse through a handful of available designs for onsite homes, and must often agree to abide by earth-friendly ordinances—for instance, promising that they will not use toxic paints and finishes.
To net zero or not?
One of the thorniest obstacles facing ZNEs has been solar storage: while modern photovoltaic cells demonstrate much higher efficiency levels than they did when they were first introduced in the 1950s, solar batteries are another story. California’s plan calls for the construction of better onsite storage solutions, but doesn’t lay out many details beyond that, so just how this requirement will manifest remains to be seen.
Another issue has been price. In a recent article, The Wall Street Journal declared ZNEs a building-industry “power-play,” finally concluding that although net zero builders had made strides to reduce costs, most Americans still perceive these homes as expensive novelties for the rich. But many developers quote a price point that is arguably pretty reasonable: net zero duplexes in Maryland start in the upper $200,000s, while Oakwood Homes in Colorado go for a mere $188,000.
The changing face of energy
Residential and commercial units encompass about 40 percent of total US energy consumption. By 2025, it’s expected that 27,000 of those buildings will be net zero—a rate of adoption much higher than previously anticipated—stimulated in part by the growth in California.
With more attention focused on net zero homes than ever, the impetus will be on utility companies to lead by California’s example, with strategic partnerships with solar providers and home builders forming an important part of their business. If ZNEs with their own solar storage systems continue to gain popularity, then utility pricing models may need to be adapted as well, as charging residents per kilowatt will no longer make sense. All in all, one thing’s for certain: as interest in solar power and renewables picks up, it will definitely make for an “energetic” future.
About the Author
Bryn Huntpalmer is a mother of two young children living in Austin, Texas where she currently works as an Editor for Modernize. In addition to regularly contributing to Home Remodeling and Design websites around the web, her writing can be found on Lifehacker and About.com.