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Builders aim for super-energy-efficient homes

ZeroHouse, a KB Home model of efficiency in Lake Forest, showcases efforts to offer buyers homes that produce as much energy as they use.

September 22, 2012|By Alejandro Lazo, Los Angeles Times

Crowned with three gables and painted in hues of gray and white, the suburban home in Lake Forest doesn't look much like the domicile of the future.

But as summer heat radiates off the fresh asphalt outside, the home runs comfortably at full tilt indoors. Recessed lights shine, radios blare and air-conditioned splendor greets hot skin. Despite all systems going, the property is producing more electricity than it can consume on a warm summer day — and that's the goal.

Unveiled late last year, the ZeroHouse model by Los Angeles builder KB Home embodies the industry's bid to move beyond the one-of-a-kind vanity project and make subdivision building a green practice. Net-zero homes such as the one KB Home has built are highly efficient properties paired with renewable energy technology such as solar panel systems, resulting in homes so green they produce at least as much juice as they consume.

California has had expansive policies mandating and incentivizing the development of greener new homes for years, but the implementation of those goals has been slowed by the weak housing market and the dearth of new construction.

With the market healing, and with builders trying to distinguish their products from homes they built as recently as six years ago, companies such as KB Home, Lennar Corp. and others are rolling out more options for consumers and increasingly making energy efficiency part of the basic package.

"For new homes, it is becoming more of a standard feature, and the reason is that builders need a compelling reason that somebody should buy a new home rather than a resale," said Patrick Duffy, principal for research firm MetroIntelligence Real Estate Advisors.

In coming years, California guidelines will call for ever more energy-efficient homes, with the goal of having all homes built in 2020 being net zero. For now, net zero remains more of an aspiration for the industry, though experts say builders are increasingly making standard some of the fundamental elements of green design, including more efficient appliances, lighting and solar panel systems.

In Southern California, KB Home has made solar systems standard. Lennar, Pulte Homes and Pardee Homes offer solar home projects. ABC Green Home of Newport Beach will be building a net-zero home to showcase green technology for consumers. Clarum Homes in Palo Alto is a custom builder that has gained praise for incorporating energy efficiency and passive solar features into homes with modernist flourishes.

Moving to Southern California from Maryland, Ray and Linda Frilot wanted to buy a new home because the resales needed too much work, from $20,000 to $50,000 worth of remodeling. They were attracted to the solar offerings at KB Home's Fox Hollow at the Crown Valley Village development in Murrieta, said Ray Frilot, a retired government worker and former military man.

Aside from a 2.25-kilowatt solar system, the home has a tankless hot water heater, some LED lighting and Energy Star appliances. Although the home wasn't advertised as a net-zero property when they bought it, he and his wife conserve so much energy from habits picked up while living in Germany that the electricity bill from Southern California Edison Co. is close to zero.

"The energy that I don't use Edison buys from me," he said. "It looks like I may not have an electric bill next year, because the electricity, all of it is going to keep on adding to that credit. I still have to pay delivery and handling charges, but that is just a couple of bucks a month."

Net-zero homes couldn't exist without this type of subsidization, called net metering. Net-zero homeowners rely on power from utilities at night but get credit for the energy they produce during the day that they don't consume.

Net metering allows homeowners to get credit for the power they produce at a retail rate rather than a wholesale rate. There is currently a cap on net metering programs for that reason. Although the cap won't be hit any time soon, experts said, the future of net metering is uncertain.

Environmentalists began pushing for California to mandate that new homes come with renewable energy systems in the early 2000s, as the technology became more scalable and available.

The effort to get builders to build green morphed into state law SB 1, which focused on incentives and created the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, calling for the creation of 3,000 megawatts of new, solar-generated electricity by 2016.

Gov. Jerry Brown has increased that goal to 12,000 megawatts, or roughly the equivalent of 12 nuclear power plants, according to the group Environment California. A thousand megawatts of solar energy could power about 250,000 homes.

Also created as part of the law was the California Solar Initiative, which uses rebates to promote renewable energy use in previously owned homes, as well as commercial, agricultural, government and nonprofit buildings. The similar New Solar Homes Partnership targets new houses.

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