solar panels

Net-Zero & Beyond

As I write this it’s a very cold day in late November. Suddenly, I’m now acutely aware of the oil level in my tank. Winter has made itself an uninvited guest a full month early, and these days we often ask “why is that? Is this part of climate change?” Whatever the reason, winters always get cold, sometimes very cold. If your house isn’t insulated well, it can be costly and uncomfortable. Everyone (I hope) knows how important insulation is. But, just how important is shocking. Read on.

Maine has one of the oldest housing stocks in the country, and this poses special problems for owners of older homes, where taking advantage of cutting edge technology is far more difficult than buying or building a home with the technology embedded. As the chasm widens between cost-effective energy-efficient homes and budget-busting older homes, there may be an approaching tipping point that will push the green revolution into hyper-drive.

Green building has been around for about 30 years, but the awareness of its importance, the array and improvements of products that emerged in that time, and the urgency of making big changes brought on by a changing climate now make considering green building a worthwhile, if not essential endeavor. Being fluent in “green speak” will be ubiquitous in many professions, but none more vital than in real estate.

Today you cannot build a new home without considering what energy-efficient features make sense. California, an energy-efficient-building leader, will require all new residential buildings to have solar panels in 2020 and beyond. By 2030 their goal is to have 50% of all electricity in the state from renewable energy sources. They stop short of requiring homes to be energy “net zero”, but that will come eventually. Net-zero means the home itself produces as much energy as it consumes. 

California may be the engine of this train, but Maine – first in so many things – is near the caboose. This is no doubt a function of the aging housing stock, but as energy costs escalate to ever-higher levels, the cost-effectiveness of retrofitting older homes with high “R” value insulation and energy-efficient systems will eventually become commonplace, even essential. All over the country, there are new construction projects which are filling the need for green building and achieving the net-zero goal. In Florida, there is an entire community conceived with this in mind. It is the first solar community in the country, called Babcock Ranch (babcockranch.com). Florida Light & Power has constructed a dedicated solar farm to serve the community’s total energy needs exclusively, making the entire project net zero.

For us in Maine, this kind of thing seems far-fetched if not extremely difficult. However, we do have the capacity to achieve the net-zero goal, home by home. Solar panel costs have dropped significantly and continue to drop, and output capacities have increased as well, making it possible to produce enough electricity service all your electrical needs, to heat your home, and plugin that electric car that will someday be in your garage or driveway. You’ll need from 1,100 – 1,500 square feet of “sunny” roof to do all that, depending on the size of your home, and the amount of insulation it has. For optimal performance from your solar array, you’ll want R40 in your walls and R60 in your roof.  Doing this will reduce heating costs by up to 85% all by itself, according to Naoto Inoue of Talmage Solar Engineering, Inc. in Arundel, depending upon at what level of insulation you start. With that much insulation, you can power an 1,800 square foot house and heat it with a 7Kw system, which will take 560 square feet of real estate on the roof or yard using the latest available solar panels.

The federal government provides a 30% incentive, and 0% down loans are available. An installed solar system will increase the value of your home by at least 3%, and you will save on your energy bills from day one, as the loan payments will be considerably less than what you pay to the power utility. Add a battery from Tesla, and you’ll be off the grid and never have to worry about power outages again, something Mainers deal with all too frequently. 

For most folks, all this seems like a pipe dream. If your home doesn’t have the requisite sunny roof or yard area, you may think there’s no way of tapping this technology. But, solar farms or “community solar projects” are a solution for some. This allows you to benefit without owning your own solar system. The savings come from paying a fixed amount that’s lower than the normal utility company rates. You subscribe to the community project and receive “net metering credits” on your utility bill. As the costs of electricity go up, so do the savings from fixed payments. This is an option for renters as well, and subscriptions can be sold to anyone in the same area that is served by the community solar project. The aforementioned Florida project, Babcock Ranch, is a version of this concept.

The good news is there are 16 states offering “virtual net metering” to take advantage of community solar projects, and Maine is one of them! The bad news is there are no such projects in the offing in York County, according to Mr. Inuoe, a 30+ year veteran of the solar industry. He explains that the financial incentives don’t work in this state – at least not at the moment.  If energy costs go a lot higher, they would work, as they do in higher cost locations.

There is a large project in West Kennebunk being built by Kennebunk Light & Power, as part of a different financial vehicle called the “power purchase agreement”, or PPA.  A PPA is a long-term agreement, 25 years in this case, between KLP customers and the project developer, who acquires the land, builds out the solar array, and pays for all costs including operation and maintenance, in exchange for a lower, fixed energy rate to the consumer. Both the PPA and Community Solar Projects are remotely located, and offer the possibility of energy savings, but neither offers the benefits of increased property value or a true “off the grid” solution.

Still, the best option is to outfit your home with solar panels. To get started with your solar project you will need to conduct a thorough energy audit, which ranges in cost from $250 – $650 according to the home’s size. The first part of this audit is to reveal where you are losing heat. A very effective tool for this is the blower door test. With doors and windows tightly shut, a sealed door with a powerful fan depressurizes your home so that air leaks can be detected with an infrared camera. The auditor also determines your “R” values of insulation throughout the house, wiring, and plumbing perforations through walls and floors that may be leaking heat. He will also look at your boiler or furnace and water heater to determine efficiency. Finally, the auditor will evaluate your lighting for any possible efficiency improvements.

Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can formulate a plan that’s within your budget.  Obviously, making your home a model of efficiency can be an expensive proposition, but the annual savings will eventually recover those costs. What is not appreciated generally is the enhanced value of a property that has been made truly energy-efficient. Considering the staggering reduction in energy use cited above (85%) with R40 walls and R60 ceilings alone, this level of investment will yield dramatic results in a short period.

If it’s possible to get R40/R60 in your home (not an easy accomplishment), it will reduce the cash outlay for the solar panels, as the energy to heat the home will be way less, making the net-zero goal much more attainable. Then, if there’s enough gas in the tank, or more appropriately, more juice in the battery – financially – you could add panels to charge up that Tesla, or other electric vehicles. All the major auto manufacturers are gearing up for the electric car revolution, so it’s inevitable the net zero revolution will include personal transportation as well. 

So, the big takeaway here is making your home tight to the weather and insulated as much as possible. These two things will make a dramatic difference in energy consumption. Without this first step, your goal of net-zero will have zero chance of becoming a reality. 

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