Sacramento, Calif., Homeowners in 'Zero Energy Homes' Cheer Low Utility Bills

Micah Van Der Kamp of Sacramento looks forward to his monthly electric bill.

Dec. 11—SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Micah Van Der Kamp of Sacramento looks forward to his monthly electric bill.

If that seems surprising, consider this: the Sacramento Municipal Utility District customer's bill for November was $6.03. Back in July, during the peak of the air-conditioning season, it was $21.18.

"I'm actually excited about the SMUD bill to see how low it is," the first-time homeowner said.

Some of Van Der Kamp's neighbors, in fact, have negative bills, SMUD reported — meaning the utility gives them a credit against future electric use. They live in one of a handful of Northern California new-home developments that meet federal Zero Energy Homes standards.

No, it's not yet possible build an affordable home that produces as much energy as it consumes, but the goal is have entire subdivisions of such homes under construction by 2020. Currently, communities such as Premier Gardens in Sacramento, where Van Der Kamp lives, offer models that cut the total energy bills by up to 60 percent and produce nearly as much electricity as they consume.

They feature electric solar panels that fit neatly into a section of concrete roofing tiles as well as energy-saving features such as tankless natural-gas water heaters, high-efficiency windows and foam exterior insulation.

"It's not just a subdivision. It's a power station," said John Ralston, marketing vice president of Roseville-based Premier Homes, the builder. Or dozens of power stations, as each home is equipped with a 2-kilowatt solar system.

The first homes in the subdivision were occupied in July, so records on power use are limited, said Mike Keesee, SMUD solar project manager.

Still, he said, "We've gotten some bills back that are ridiculously low. ...

We're really making some progress here."

And the new-home project offers nearly a perfect test case, he noted.

Premier Gardens, and its Zero Energy Homes, comprises half of a joint development. Another builder, Crestleigh Homes is constructing a nearly identical homes — but without the extra energy-saving features — on the other half.

"In the month of September, which was a pretty warm month, the average other-subdivision bill was $66.68 whereas the average Premiere bill was $19.99," Keesee said. "In fact, a few people had negative bills."

In October, cooler weather reducing air-conditioning demand, but also cut the amount of solar energy available.

That month, the average Premier electric bill was $18.87 vs. an average of $43.90 for the standard homes, Keesee said. Again, several Zero Energy Home owners received a SMUD credit.

He expects the difference in electric bills to diminish though the winter, as the amount of sunlight drops, but the gap should widen again next spring.

"We'll be looking at this over the next couple of years," Keesee promised.

Adding, "It's exciting from a professional point of view. You get to actually study this in a controlled situation."

Van Der Kamp, however, didn't buy the house for its energy-saving features.

"It was just kind of a bonus we got that," he said. "I just wanted to live here because it was close to work."

For one of his new neighbors, however, the technology was an important factor.

"It made all the difference in the world," said Chuck Wingo about his buying decision.

Having moved in just last week, Wingo has yet to see his first utility bill.

However, he has the impression that his home's heating system has operate only minimally to maintain a comfortable temperature. Also, the extra insulation means the house is quiet; with the windows closed he can't hear the elementary school playground across the way.

Energy-efficiency is just one of the considerations for most new home shoppers, Ralston said. Location, floor-plan design, perceived value and price are other important factors.

The special energy features add about $20,000 to the cost of building a Zero Energy Home, said Rob Hammon, principal of Consol Inc., a Stockton energy consultant that helped Premier Homes get involved in the Zero Energy initiative.

"The majority of that cost is solar cells," he said.

And while it might take a long time for the lower utility-bills to offset the higher cost of the energy systems overall, homeowners should realize almost immediate month-to-month savings.

"In most cases, if you amortize the cost of the systems and balance that with the utility savings, they should have a positive cash flow," Hammon said. In other words, the energy features reduce gas and electric bills more than their higher cost boosts mortgage payments.

If true, such systems might help make homes more affordable, said Randall Ruby, executive director of the Builders Exchange of Stockton.

"It really lends its self to the American ideal of home ownership. If this helps to promulgate that, then great," he said.

Ruby questioned, however, concerns about the cost of upkeep and repair of the energy systems.

Another unknown, Hammon said, is what happens when the Zero Energy Homes are resold.

"Will you get your money back when you sell it? The jury's still out on that," he said.

The price premium is somewhat diminished by the relative high price of housing — base prices on the nine remaining Premier Gardens homes last week ran from $366,000 to $421,000 — and the rapidly escalating housing market.

Homeowner Wingo said the $414,000 he paid "was a good price. It was a good deal."

Premier Gardens sales associate Sheri Briggs said her project's prices were very comparable to those in the adjoining project.

Besides, she said, the Zero Energy Homes technology really helps set the project apart in consumers' minds.

"If they want a granite countertop, they can buy one, but there isn't anyone else who will give them what we've given them," Briggs said. "It's something to be really proud of."

Premier has another ZEH project in Roseville, called Premier Oaks. Morrison Homes recently completed a project in Elk Grove where about 12 percent of the abodes met ZEH standards.

Palo Alto-based Clarum Homes has a ZEH project in Watsonville with 257 homes and is planning future energy-saving projects in that city, as well as Danville, San Leandro and Menlo Park.

While there are no Zero Energy Homes projects planned in San Joaquin County, Kevin A. Sharrar, executive director of the Building Industry Association of the Delta, said he wouldn't be surprised to see such a development in the near future.

"We are seeing an increase in Sacramento and East Bay builders building projects in San Joaquin County. With that, they import ideas and building techniques," he said. "... Chances are, it's not a matter of if, it's more a matter of when."

Through the first 10 months of this year, building permits were issued for 5,385 single-family homes in San Joaquin County. That's about 300 fewer homes than were built during the same period in 2003, a record home building year in the county.

It is hoped that construction of even a limited number of energy-generating homes will stimulate research and development of even better technology, Hammon said.

"We're trying to find a way to transition the market to highly efficient homes. ... And we're trying to develop a market for technologies to build such homes," he said. "If we can build up some volume, then costs are going to come down."

You don't have to try to convince Van Der Kamp. He's sold on the advantages.

"You don't' really have to worry about anything with the solar energy," he said. "I don't have to turn anything on or anything off. It just works."

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