In the words of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), “marketable zero energy homes”—the kind of zero energy homes that the average American home buyer could shop for on Sunday outings as they would for any other home—were needed. It became the job of DOE’s Building America program, established in 1995, to make that idea a reality by 2020 and there were soon a few concrete signs. Within five to 10 years, a number of private homes that looked much like any other, but that were far more energy efficient and that had solar installations on their roofs, were built under the program. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the various initiatives appeared to be having some impact. Builders scattered about the country began showing an interest in developing the kind of zero energy-rated production homes that might serve as models for large-scale development.
The challenge of developing a zero energy home at the same cost as a conventional house remains and, in fact, has become even more challenging. The world’s love of all things that run on electricity has only grown with time. In the first half of electricity’s first century in American homes, lighting, radios, and refrigerators were the only significant users. In the post-war era, there has been an explosion of electric appliances and gadgetry. Televisions, clothes washers and dryers, dishwashers, air-conditioning, ranges, microwaves, computers, video game sets, DVD players, cell phones, and innumerable electric gadgets, including electric blankets, toothbrushes, hair dryers, can openers, exercise equipment, chargers, iPods, and e-books are fixtures in the homes of developed nations. Many are always on, sucking “phantom” energy as if through a straw.
It’s no wonder then that residential electricity use had grown from 67 billion kilowatt-hours annually in 1949 to 1,379 billion kilowatt-hours annually in 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), far outstripping the growth of the population. (That increase is virtually the same for commercial electricity consumption.) In recent decades, the rate of growth has slowed considerably, but the outlook for cutting back on our energy use isn’t encouraging. Whatever timelines governments may impose, the EIA doesn’t see any reduction in residential energy use—nor in commercial, transportation, or industrial energy use—out to 2035. Still, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a dramatic drop in residential energy use.
Evidence suggests that incentives are an important engine for change. Solar electric use, for example, is highest in those states that have incentives and lowest in those that don’t. Six of the top 10 solar markets listed by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council have among the best financial incentives, including No. 1 California, which also has abundant sunshine. Out of the remaining top nine markets, four are western states with plenty of the latter and space for utilities to develop large-scale solar arrays.
Lew Pratsch, a former zero energy homes project manager in the Building America program, thinks it’s just a matter of moving enough money around. “If you increase the cost of utilities, then used these revenues to provide financial incentives so that homeowners could see it, then it would work,” he says. In short, the cost-effectiveness of efficiency and solar production would be obvious and irresistible should the government wield financial carrots and sticks.
Yet, even if zero energy homes remain a major challenge for large-scale development, they will increasingly become the standard by which housing is measured in the developed world. It’s a standard whose meaning is clear virtually everywhere. There’s no living up to the spirit of a “green,” “efficient,” “sustainable,” or “eco-friendly” home, since there’s no one standard or benchmark for any of these. Builders toss “green” around with impunity for adding a few good features, like Energy Star appliances, that modestly improve a home’s efficiency.
But as ideas travel around the world, zero energy homes will become increasingly accessible to builders and homeowners committed to developing and living in one. In fact, with the passage of time they will be proven to be cheaper than traditional homes. That’s because owners who stay in them over the length of a typical mortgage will get a return on their investment through energy savings far greater than with any other housing.