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California: Three Hours Behind the East Coast, but Years Ahead in Sustainability?!

Solar Panels San Francisco

Image source: www.greentechgazette.com

As a native Californian, I often marvel at my home state’s progressive attitude towards environmental conservation. In 1988, we were the first state to adopt air quality standards, which the federal Clean Air Act would later be amended to resemble. More recently, landmark legislation such as A.B. 32, or California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, set the first statewide requirements for GHG emissions reductions in the country. Today, cities like San Francisco have plastic bag bans and zero-waste initiatives. However, our culture is one of sustainability partly out of necessity—in January 2014, Governor Brown declared California’s severe and sustained drought situation a state of emergency. Despite our already resource-constrained present, California’s population is anticipated to increase by 14% over the next fifteen years to 44 million people. The good news is, we’ve made some big strides recently in planning for the future demands of an ever-growing population.

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A Tour of DURA, New York City College of Technology’s Urban and Resilient Solar Decathlon Home

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the DURAhome, New York City College of Technology’s entry for the 2015 Solar Decathlon. This project is currently nearing completion at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Over the past 3 months, more than sixty students have toiled around the clock to finish construction in time for the contest, which will take place October 8-18 in Irvine, California. The Solar Decathlon is the U.S. Department of Energy’s biennial competition that challenges college and university student-led teams to design and build solar-powered net-zero homes that are affordable, energy-efficient, and aesthetically appealing.

TeamDURA’s focus was to create a prototype of post-disaster housing that is suited for New York City’s high-density urban environment, and could serve as a shelter in the aftermath of a catastrophic storm. As such, multifamily, multistory solutions were preferable to traditional single-family trailers, which have larger footprints. DURAhome consists of several prefabricated modules that can be packaged and shipped on standard-sized tractor trailers for quick response at low cost. These flexible modules can then be joined in standalone configurations or stacked for multifamily uses. Like the city, the DURAhome is diverse, urban, resilient, and adaptable.

NY City Tech Freshman Langston Clark continues work on DURA into the early evening.

NY City Tech Freshman Langston Clark continues work on DURA into the early evening.

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CT Zero Energy Challenge (Part 2) – An Alphabet Soup of Certifications

Earlier this week, we posted a video about the CT Zero Energy Challenge’s first-place winner, the Benker/Wegner Residence. Today we bring you the story of the third-place winner in this year’s challenge, the Taft School’s Residence. Aside from housing faculty members, the home is serving as a teaching aid for Taft students to study the design details of a high-performance home, and to understand the experience of living in one.

After installation of a 13kW photovoltaic (PV) system, the home achieved a HERS Index of -14! The SWA team is providing certification support for a slew of exciting green building programs including the stringent Passive House US™ Certification, LEED for Homes, Living Building Challenge™, and ENERGY STAR v3.1.

Check out the video featuring the project team members: Architect, Elizabeth DiSalvo from Trillium Architects; Builder, Chris Trolle from BPC Green Builders; and SWA’s Maureen Mahle.

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CT Zero Energy Challenge (Part 1) – How Low Can You Go?

There were 11 projects entered into this year’s CT Zero Energy Challenge, sponsored by EnergizeCT.  The single- and multi-family homes taking part in this competition are designed and constructed utilizing innovative techniques in order to try and reach the illustrious goal of net-zero energy-use.

I’m excited to report that SWA worked with 4 of the homes entered into this year’s competition, including the first- and third-place winners! For each of the three winning projects, EnergizeCT has created a video to showcase the story behind the homes, and to highlight some of the most notable features.

Today’s video is about the first-place winner, a single-family home in South Glastonbury, CT, constructed by Glastonbury Housesmith. The owners, Carl Benker and Elizabeth Wegner are first-time homebuyers who wanted to be able to live as close to “off the grid” as possible. Check out SWA’s HERS-rater extraordinaire, Karla Donnelly, discussing the competition, and how this home came to achieve an amazing HERS Index Rating of a -23!

(Right-click and select “run this plug-in” if you cannot see the video below)

 

The project also won the 2015 RESNET Cross Border Challenge for lowest HERS score with photovoltaics (PV)!

You can read more information on SWA’s project here. 

Recalculating Solar Savings

Ten years ago, seeing a solar electric system on a building was noteworthy. Now they’re popping up everywhere. Lower cost is obviously a big driver of this solar surge; photovoltaic (or PV) system costs have dropped 50-70% in the past 10-15 years. Over the past decade, SWA has helped developers and owners install PV systems on hundreds of buildings. The systems are reliable, they have no moving parts, and they will convert sunlight to electricity for decades.

The cost effectiveness of PV, however, is not always clear. In fact, SWA has seen a concerning trend where the cost benefits of PV are exaggerated. Although costs vary with region and application, installed costs of PV are usually $3,000 – $6,000 per kWSTC.

Then there are incentives, including two key federal programs:

Photovoltaic Panels

  • 30% Federal tax credit
  • Accelerated depreciation (for businesses)

Other incentives vary greatly from region to region:

  • State, local, and utility rebates or credits
  • Sale of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs)

The Database for State Incentives for Renewable Energy (dsireusa.org) has a good summary of these regional incentives. Federal and regional incentives can easily lower PV system costs by 50% — often more.

The final piece in assessing cost effectiveness of PV is the electricity savings. With PV generating electricity for your building, you’ll obviously be paying less to the utility. But how much less? Read more