How Green is Your Home? And How Much Green Does Your Home Save?

posted by Matthew Wheeland on December 11th, 2013

green home at nightEditor’s note: This guest post is written by Michael Joseph, who has 12 years of experience as an interior designer, and currently works for Champion Window.

Over the past few years, a steadily increasing number of homeowners have switched to solar power as a way to save on energy costs and drastically reduce their carbon footprints. While producing your own electricity is a great way to save money, the best place to start is by making the most of every watt that enters your home.

The following questions list some steps you can take to make your home more energy efficient. There are many more, but if you answer yes to most of these questions, you can rest assured that your home is indeed green — and you’ll be saving even more green every month.

Have you installed these energy-saving devices?

A few simple, relatively affordable gadgets can go a long way toward cutting down on your heating bill. For instance, a spot infrared thermometer, a handy little gadget that can easily locate leaks in your home’s insulation without calling in a professional energy auditor.

A programmable thermostat: Since the launch of the Nest Learning Thermostat, these smart devices have gained some major public attention. Proper use of pre-programmed settings in a programmable thermostat can save you about $180 every year in energy costs.

Slaying the vampire gadgets: All the electronics you keep plugged into your walls 24/7 can eat up a ton of energy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 75 percent of the electricity used to power home electronics is consumed while the products are turned off but not unplugged. This adds up to nearly 10 percent of U.S. household electricity use, or approximately $4 billion per year. You can curtail those phantom loads that your electronic appliances are devouring by plugging the appliances into power strips, and switching the strip off when they are not being used.

Are you doing what you can to plug the thermal envelope of your home?

Have you ensured that air is not escaping through unnecessary openings in your home? Check the walls, chimney, the attic, holes made for electrical fixtures and make sure they are well insulated. Plug leaks around windows and doors with caulking and weatherstripping.

Do you have energy-efficient, multi-paned, gas-filled widows with low-e coating? Approximately a third of an average home’s total heat loss occurs through your doors and windows. Replacing old windows with Energy-Star qualified windows lowers household energy bills by 7-15 percent.

Do you have a cool roof — one that reflects as much sunlight as possible? Have you used eco-friendly materials for your roofing?

Do you go in for energy-saving appliances?

When your old appliances and electronic devices break down, do you replace them with new energy-efficient ones that have the Energy Star label? These cost more but use 10-15 percent less energy and release less greenhouse gases into the air than traditional appliances. You can recover their higher upfront cost through reduced energy bills. Pay particular attention to the fridge, which is one of the highest energy-consuming appliances in the home. Do you keep it functioning at its maximum by regularly keep its heating coils and rubber door seals clean?

What about heating and cooling equipment?

Have you installed Energy Star-rated ceiling fans? You can reduce energy costs by up to 14 percent just by turning up the thermostat two degrees and using ceiling fans in summer.

Do you have an eco-friendly air-conditioner? This could cut your cooling costs by at least 30 percent and prevent emission of around 1,600 pounds of greenhouse gases annually. Moreover, do you clean your AC filters at least every three months to maximize its efficiency?

Have you installed a whole house fan below your attic?

Are you using a tankless water heater or a solar water heater? These are great options that will not only help you save power but water as well, when combined with low-flow faucets and showerheads.

How green is your lighting equipment?

Have you switched over to Energy Star-qualified compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) or Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs? CFLs use more than 75 percent less energy than conventional incandescent bulbs, run cooler, last 10 times longer and pay for themselves within 6 months, each bulb saving about $30 over its lifetime. LEDs are about 100 times more energy efficient than traditional lighting and are commonly used in Christmas lighting.

Have you reduced your dependence on artificial lighting during the daytime by using skylights and tubular daylight devices?

Taking your green living habits to the next level

Above and beyond all the steps listed above, there are a number of ways to change your household’s behavior to save energy and reduce your environmental impacts. Some of the most effective methods include:

  • Do you make a habit of turning off lights which are not being used?
  • Do you save energy by decreasing your water heater temperature to about 130° F when using appliances like the dishwasher and washing machine? And, whenever possible, do you avoid using the dryer and use a clothesline instead to dry your clothes?
  • Do you make it a point to turn off all sources of heat(such as lights, appliances and electrical equipment) when not in use in the summer? This will help keep your home or workplace cooler and reduce the need for fans or air conditioning.
  • Have you planted shady trees a foot away from the outer walls of your home to create a dead airspace that will shield it against extreme outdoor temperatures?
  • Do you use insulated shades, drapes and other window treatments to make your windows more energy efficient?
  • Are you making your own non-toxic cleaning products so that you can improveyour indoor air quality?
  • Do you make a habit of recycling and reusing things around the home? All these will help you reduce your energy consumption and save significantly by way of reduced energy bills.

After going through this checklist, how green would you rate your home? Have the suggestions above spurred you on to do something about your environment and in the process for yourself as well? Let us know in the comments below.

House at night photo CC-licensed by Chad Paul.

Coloradoans Continue to Push Back Against Xcel’s Attack on Solar Power

posted by Matthew Wheeland on December 6th, 2013

colorado solar installationEarlier this week, we wrote about the big new community solar power array outside Aurora, Colo., a 498-kilowatt system that could provide clean energy to 100 homes that otherwise wouldn’t have solar. Xcel Energy, the dominant utility in the state, touted its support of the project — and in part that’s true, as the utility’s Solar*Rewards Community program connects its customers to solar garden developers.

But even while Xcel pats its own back for solar gardens, it’s also continuing in its efforts to hamstring net metering benefits for solar homeowners in the state.

This week, in documents filed to the state’s Public Utilities Commission, Xcel argued that Colorado’s net metering rate is more than twice as high as it should be, and that incentives for home solar should be slashed. In the Denver Business Journal Cathy Procter explains:

Xcel executives have said that the current credit rate, 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour, is too rich. They say the “true value” of the solar-based electricity is only about 4.6 cents per kilowatt hour.

Xcel officials say the lower figure represents the amount of power the utility doesn’t have to buy, or power plants it doesn’t have to build in order to meet demand, and they say the higher number includes a “hidden subsidy” that non-solar customers are paying for their neighbors’ solar power systems.

Net metering is one of several issues in Xcel’s proposal, including the utility’s suggestion that separate incentives encouraging the installation of solar power systems be slashed to less than a penny per watt.

Fortunately for the state, and unfortunately for Xcel, there’s a huge foundation of support for rooftop solar in Colorado, as evidenced by a new poll conducted by The Alliance for Solar Choice.

After polling voters across the state, TASC found that 78 percent of Coloradoans support net metering, and that 75 percent oppose any efforts to change net metering practices in the state. At the same time, a coalition of state residents and solar advocates have launched a Million Solar Roofs campaign in Colorado to spread home solar even faster.

Just as in Arizona, where utility company APS eked out a tiny victory in its efforts to eliminate home solar incentives, Colorado residents suggest that opposition to home solar is political suicide. Last month, Xcel lost another battle in Colorado, when voters in Boulder overwhelmingly supported a public utility initiative, one that Xcel strongly opposed.

There’s no doubt that the fight against solar is continuing, in Colorado and across the country, and we’ll continue to cover the issue.

Solar installation photo by Dennis Schroeder of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, courtesy of Environment Colorado.

How the Feds Just Helped the Rooftop Solar Boom to Grow

posted by Matthew Wheeland on November 27th, 2013

solar panel installersEditor’s note: This post on the home solar boom, by John Moore, originally appeared on the NRDC’s Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission.

Last week, a federal agency issued new and better standards for connecting rooftop solar, wind, energy storage, and other clean “distributed” power systems at homes and businesses to the electric grid, helping to make the grid connection process quicker and cheaper.

The new standards come not a moment too soon, as these home and business power systems are fast becoming a major source of electric power across the nation. Grid installations of these mostly on-site energy systems are booming, much of it rooftop solar, as more consumers want to produce their own clean power and control their electricity bills.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency charged with regulation of the high-power electric grid, issued the standards, which apply to distributed energy resources 20 megawatts and smaller in size. Among their highlights, they:

  • Expand the size and likely the number of units that can connect to the grid without costly studies;
  • Add energy storage units to the types of power that can take advantage of the standards; and
  • Increase utility information disclosure on local grid conditions – essential for identifying the best locations to connect distributed energy resources to the grid.

Why are new standards necessary?

The new FERC standards address technically important issues related to the increasing need to connect solar photovoltaic (PV) and other distributed generation to local grids. Many state clean energy laws include targets for these on-site units, and net metering” arrangements allow homeowners to sell excess power to the local utility.

Keep in mind that in most cases, installing a solar panel or wind or other power system does not mean going “off grid.” The homeowner or business needs to connect to a power line nearby to ensure a dependable supply of power when the onsite system isn’t producing, and to provide power back to the grid for neighbors to use. Grid power also helps to balance the minute-to-minute power variations in home power units.

A local “distribution” grid of power lines works to distribute and deliver energy from higher voltage transmission lines to our neighborhoods. These smaller lines can handle only so much additional power from distributed energy systems without experiencing problems – even though those same lines are delivering less power from large power plants as a result of the proliferation of onsite power systems.

distributed generation chart

(Click to enlarge. Source, U.S. DOE, as modified by author)

Without efficient and streamlined interconnection standards like those issued today, nearly every local utility would require homeowners and businesses to pay for expensive and time-consuming studies to look at whether their solar PV or wind system could safely connect to the distribution grid. FERC’s guidelines, both existing and newly improved by today’s order, avoid the need for many of these studies.

Note that the new standards are legally binding only on utility companies that own large transmission lines. Very few small generating resources interconnect to these lines. But, just as occurred with its 2005 standards, FERC expects the rule to be used as a model for state regulatory commissions and utilities that own the smaller, distribution level lines. Therefore, owners of onsite electricity generation systems, and those considering them, should urge their local utilities and state regulators to adopt the new guidelines as soon as possible in order to make it easier for this clean energy to continue to flourish.

Stellar growth in distributed generation

Nationwide, distributed power produced onsite is exploding. Specifically:

Solar PV: 95,000 distributed PV solar systems were installed last year alone; nearly 300,000 total residential solar PV systems are now connected to the grid.

JM2.png

(Click to enlarge. Source: Interstate Renewable Energy Council, used with permission)

Wind: 3,800 small wind turbines were installed in 2012; 69,000 units are now grid-connected in all 50 states.

JM1.png

(Click to enlarge. Source: U.S. DOE)

The total electric power of all of these units is north of 8,000 megawatts (enough to power 1.3 million homes); small solar PV alone is expected to double in power capacity by 2015.

Improving on the Past

Although FERC issued standards for interconnecting small power units in 2005, there were relatively low maximum limits on both the size of the local power units and the power line energy capacity. Today’s improved standards reflect utility and customer experience with the tens of thousands of interconnections that have occurred since then. For example, larger systems can be connected to local power lines more safely than initially believed, and technology improvements further reduce any reliability risks. The new standards are based largely on California’s Rule 21, which many believe represents the state-of-the-art in technical conditions for small generator interconnections.

  • Among the more significant changes is an increase in the size of inverter-based systems eligible for expedited Fast Track review, from 2 megawatts up to 5 megawatts, if the system is located close to the substation and on “larger” wires better able to accommodate larger systems. (An inverter-based system converts the direct current flow from the solar panels into home- and grid-friendly alternating current.)
  • Another important advancement is more projects will be able to proceed without a full technical study as long as the total amount of generation on a single line does not exceed 100% of the line’s minimum energy demand and the proposed connection passes specific safety, reliability, and power quality conditions.
  • The new standards will also help customers understand the best points on a neighborhood grid to connect solar, wind, and other small generation by providing access to local grid information in advance.
  • Finally, they now include energy storage as a covered technology subject to the standards – good news for those wanting to pair a wind or solar system with a storage unit.

What you can do

To ensure the new FERC guidelines are adopted in your state, ask your state’s renewable energy trade associations and environmental/clean energy groups for the best way to contact the right state officials to get them approved.

For more information:

    1. FERC’s final rule: Small Generator Interconnection Agreements and Procedures (issued November 22, 2013)
    2. Comments of the Sustainable FERC Project and 24 Public Interest Organizations
    3. 2013 Updates & Trends Report (Interstate Renewable Energy Council)
    4. 2012 Market Report on Wind Technologies in Distributed Applications (U.S. DOE)

This article originally appeared on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission. Visit NRDCs Switchboard Blog

Op-Ed: Why Arizona’s Net Metering Decision is a Victory for Solar Rights

posted by Matthew Wheeland on November 15th, 2013

arizona solar victoryEditor’s note: This blog post: Why Arizona’s Net Metering Decision is a Victory for Solar Rights, by Annie Lappe of Vote Solar, was originally published on the Vote Solar blog and is reprinted with permission.

In a victory of David vs Goliath proportions, policymakers in Arizona stood strong for its citizens by rejecting an attempt from the state’s largest utility to squash rooftop solar. Five months after Arizona Public Service (APS) sought approval to slap hefty new fees on its customers that go solar, the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) voted yesterday to uphold Arizona solar savings and energy choice.

Driving this proposal was that fact that solar is offering customers an affordable new energy option, and Arizonans are increasingly choosing to generate their own power from the sun. Rather than working with its customers and meeting this new market demand, APS attempted to dig in and regulate against competition to maintain its monopoly hold on electricity.

APS Proposal Denied

APS had proposed a new $50 -100 monthly charge for solar customers, a discriminatory fee that would have wiped out any savings these customers would currently receive from their solar investment. APS justified the solar fee by saying that net metering — a program that ensures solar customers receive full retail credit for power they deliver to the grid for their neighbors to use – is a bad deal for Arizonans — but that’s just not true: private investment in reliable, local power generation benefits all ratepayers. Full retail net metering credit is a simple and proven way for customers and utilities to assign value to that power.

A study conducted this year for SEIA showed that these net metered systems actually deliver much more: $34 million in annual net grid benefits for APS customers alone. That’s before accounting for the social and environmental benefits: cleaner air and thousands of local jobs. APS’s proposals were clearly not grounded in a fair accounting for DG solar’s real value, and our allies argued strongly in favor of undertaking that fair accounting in the appropriate venue: the next rate case.

Arizonans Show Up to Support Rooftop Solar

Despite millions of dollars spent on a misleading campaign by the utility and its proxies, public outcry against the APS proposal was overwhelming. A poll conducted last week found that, even after months of being blanketed by utility ads, a whopping 81 percent reject APS’s solar fee and 77 percent would be less likely to vote for a candidate who ends solar savings. Over the course of this long campaign, more than 30,000 Arizonans emailed the ACC in support of rooftop solar.

That support was demonstrated in person earlier this week when 1,000 Arizonans gathered in front of the ACC this week to protest APS’s proposed fee. Inside a steady stream of about 100 citizens — solar workers, solar customers, non-solar customers, environmental advocates, retirees, veterans, even one passionate 11-year old girl — urged the Commissioners to stand up against the utility for the good of Arizonans. Yesterday’s vote is a resounding demonstration that the peoples’ support of solar trumps corporate money. It showed just how out of step APS’s anti-solar efforts are with the needs and demands of its own customers, and we were pleased to see Commission acting on behalf of the public they serve.

Interim Fixed Fee Adopted

It’s important to note that while the most egregious aspects of APS’s proposal were soundly rejected, the Commission did vote by a 3-2 vote to implement a relatively small new fixed fee of $0.70 per kilowatt as a monthly charge all for all new residential solar customers (i.e. if you have a 5kW system on your house, you would pay $3.50 a month). The vote broke down as follows: Commissioners Stump, Bitter-Smith and Bob Burns voted “yes,” and Commissioners Pierce and Brenda Burns voted no, arguing that the fixed fee was too low.

The fee will be collected through the “Lost Fixed Cost Recovery” (“LFCR’) adjustor mechanism. APS is already using the LFCR to collect funds from customers to account for the fact that the Company is losing money when customers invest in energy efficiency or distributed-generation solar.

The new fixed charge will stay in place until APS’s next general rate case, which must be filed in June 2015. However, the Commission did add a clause that allows the ACC to periodically adjust this charge in any APS LCFR reset proceeding, which happen on an annual basis. During the next rate case, net metering will be addressed in more detail.

Existing solar customers will not be assessed this charge, and will be “grandfathered” under their current rate structure arrangement, at least until the next rate case, though verbally several Commissioners expressed intent that they would be grandfathered from the charge in perpetuity. However, all rooftop solar customers, including existing customers, will soon need to sign a disclaimer that acknowledges that rates can change in the future.

Workshop Process Established

In the interim between now and the next rate case, the Commission has also decided to hold a series of workshops to determine the true costs and benefits, and any associated cost shift, of net metering.  Vote Solar looks forward to participating in this process and making sure that individual solar investment is properly valued.

We strongly disagree with the Commissions that net metering represents a cost to non-solar ratepayers, and we hope through the workshop process facts can be brought to the table to dispel this myth once and for all. Rooftop solar is helping Arizona families, schools and businesses take charge of their power supply and their electricity bills like never before. This private investment is helping build a cleaner, safer and lower cost energy supply for all of us.

Photo courtesy of Vote Solar.

Infographic: What it Takes to Make the Move Off the Grid

posted by Matthew Wheeland on November 12th, 2013

Alternative methods for powering our households increase in popularity each year. For some, this means installing electricity-generating solar panels and digging individual wells, while others jump completely off the grid in search of complete self-sufficiency. Taking your home off the power grid to lead a greener, simpler lifestyle doesn’t come without its costs, but the benefits certainly add up, too. Here, we break down the average costs for off-grid living (Click the image for a larger version.)

Life unplugged infographic

 

The Cost of the Simple Life
Off-grid living isn’t just for the back-woods types or Amish. In fact, an estimated 750,000 Americans currently live off the grid, with more following suit every year.

Item Description Cost
10 acres of land with unrestricted building codes Remote location in: Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, or Utah $20,000
Energy-efficient house (about 1,500 square feet) Wired and plumbed for low-voltage use and water pipe heating $100,000-$250,000
Renewable energy source Wind, solar, geothermal (including battery storage) Up to $50,000
Sustainable food source 1/2-acre garden; 1 acre of fruit trees; farm animals (chickens, goats, pigs), equipment, and storage $30,000
Renewable water source Well, rain collection, septic tank $10,000
 Total Cost: $380,000

 

Off-the-Grid ROI

While the initial investment isn’t exactly cheap, those living off the grid see their return investment in reducing their carbon footprint tremendously. Plus, you can’t put a price on the renewability of these resources. You can, however, rejoice in those $0 electric and water bills.

• The average yearly electricity bill was $1,321.68 in 2011.
• The average yearly water bill was $335 in 2011.

A Glimpse Into Renewables

Just how are Americans generating renewable energy to power their homes?

The Value of the Sun: Solar panel installation is on the rise, as more than 100,000 individual solar systems will be installed before the end of 2013.

Add up the Savings: State and federal tax incentives can cut up to two-thirds of installation costs, and once you’ve paid for the system, your electricity is free. Plus, your property value may also increase.

It’s in the Water: A clean water source is essential for life, but we’re not limited to what pours out our faucets. Consider these resourceful alternatives.

Dig a Well: According to the Groundwater Foundation, 17 million households use wells. How can you join them?

  • Hire professionals to drill a well on your property.
  • Install a pump to automatically pull water from the well when you need it.
  • Installation Cost: $3,000–$15,000, depending on extent of service

Recycle the Rain: A rain barrel system will save most homeowners about 1,300 gallons of water during the peak summer months, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

  • The rain barrel system collects and stores rainwater from your roof and prevents it from being lost to runoff.
  • Individual barrels typically include a 55-gallon drum, a vinyl hose, PVC couplings, a screen grate to keep debris and insects out, and other off-the-shelf items.
  • Installation Cost: $50-$200, depending on number of barrels installed

Heat Things Up: The next essential step heat to your home through a clean energy source. Let’s take a look at some options available.

More than Just Electricity: Ranging in cost from $3,500 to $5,000, solar thermal hot water systems also qualify for tax credits and incentives.

Try Propane: Propane cost varies by region. Using propane to heat a home in the Midwest costs an average $1,453 in the winter, while people in the Northeast can expect to pay $2,146. The installation cost for a 1,000-liter tank can cost up to $3,000.

Cleaner Heat: Propane emits less carbon dioxide compared to oil or natural gas, and is considered to be the cleanest and nontoxic fossil fuel available.

Conclusion

Regardless of what motivates your off-grid move, taking steps — big or small — to reduce or eliminate your impact on our natural resources does a world of good, while keeping money in your pocket. Win, win.

Sources: Amerigas; Energy.gov; EPA; EnergyAlternatives.ca; Investopedia; Mother Nature News; PT Money; U.S. Energy Information Administration

Tips, Tricks and Tools to Start Managing Your Home Energy Use

posted by Matthew Wheeland on November 4th, 2013

light switches on and off[Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of blog posts about smart home energy management from our partners at Alarm.com, makers of the Connected Home platform. In the coming months, their experts will examine the features and benefits of energy management in the connected home. This month, Jay Kenny explores some ways that you can employ technology in the quest to reduce your energy bills.]

In our first article, we highlighted the importance of energy management as part of the larger Connected Home technology platform. Eliminating efficiencies in the way that you use energy ultimately increases the impact that your solar production has on your overall energy footprint.

For our next step, let’s take a deeper look into how technology can provide you the information and tools to comprehensively identify energy waste and take effective, immediate steps to address it.

Track and Target Waste

Looking at your monthly home energy bill, it’s difficult to know exactly where costs are coming from and how you can start lowering them. While smart thermostats and appliance modules help reduce the amount of energy used in the home, they aren’t the whole story. You might be surprised to learn how much power appliances like televisions, refrigerators, and washing machines use every day — sometimes even when they’re turned off.

New wireless monitoring devices let you track and analyze every appliance in your home. Once you know which devices are inflating your monthly bill, automation can help manage those appliances around your daily routine. That way they’re on when you need them, and off when you don’t.

Take this example: One of my colleagues put a light control module on a motion-sensitive, outdoor flood light used for nighttime security around her home. By monitoring this specific light she discovered that it was being triggered unnecessarily during daylight hours and wasting energy. She created a schedule for that specific light so that it would operate only during nighttime hours, and she saved between 25 and 50 cents worth of energy every day. That can really add up to both energy bill costs and environmental impact.

Set Goals

Monitoring and automating devices also lets you measure your progress towards energy saving goals. Smart tools help you set achievable goals for the month and allow you to track actual consumption against them. If you fall behind, you can fine tune automations and schedules on every device in your home to get back on track.

Learning the home’s occupancy and power usage patterns is the basis for highly personalized estimates around energy consumption and savings, as well as for creating smart schedules for automation. These patterns also ensure that every automation is optimized to be as efficient as possible. For example, thermostat data can tell us how long your home takes to heat up or cool down. Taking this into account allows the energy management service to optimize the thermostat around your personal schedule.

Actionable Data

Knowing how the different devices and appliances in your home consume power also helps you make informed decisions about additional investments you’re considering to further enhance your home’s energy efficiency. For example, the thermodynamic modeling that calculates the time and energy needed to heat and cool your house can also help guide you in determining whether new windows or improved insulation would significantly improve your home’s overall efficiency. In an age of overwhelming information, sometimes it’s the little data within your home that can make the biggest impact.

Solar

Obviously solar holds great promise to significantly reduce monthly costs and accomplish energy independence. With Alarm.com and One Block Off the Grid, you can learn about options for incorporating solar energy into your home, and, once installed, monitor how much you solar production contributes to your goals. Integrating this information with Green Button data, as well as whole home as well as device level energy use information, will give you the complete picture about your home’s energy footprint.

jay-kennyJay Kenny is the VP of Marketing for Alarm.com, the makers of the Connected Home platform and advanced energy management services.

Alarm.com has well over 1 million homes subscribed to our Connected Home platform, and we have seen growing consumer interest across all the entire range energy management capabilities in the Connected Home. This includes core energy management capabilities like smart thermostats, lighting control and schedule optimization, as well as the more comprehensive energy features for monitoring appliance and whole home consumption, integrating green button data, connecting to the smart grid, and leveraging cleaner energy sources like solar power. With the Connected Home consumers can create a personalized energy management plan that’s easy to implement and that fits their goals; whether it’s saving money or the planet.

Photo Credit: danmachold via Compfight cc.

Energy-Efficient Mortgages: Another Way to Install Solar at Home

posted by Matthew Wheeland on October 30th, 2013

home for sale sign[Editor's note: This is a guest post by Phil Georgiades, the Chief Loan Steward at VA Home Loan Centers.]

While the costs of adding solar power to a home are coming down substantially, for some homebuyers, any expense is too much.

Combining energy efficient mortgages, commonly called EEMs, with tax credits can make adding solar upgrades to a home possible without out-of-pocket expenses. You’re essentially getting paid to go green when you buy a home, and increasing the payback time of any solar units.

It’s a method that few homebuyers, real estate agents and lenders are aware of.

When Solar Upgrade government mortgages (FHA and VA Loans) are used to purchase a home, a buyer can install or upgrade solar at no cost. The solar upgrades are included in the home loan, requiring no money out of a homebuyer’s pocket.

An EEM takes the savings the homeowner gets in having an energy-efficient home, and puts that savings into the mortgage itself. Lower utility bills, for example, allow a homeowner to pocket more money each month, which can be used to afford a larger home.

Conventional EEMs increase the purchasing power of buying an energy efficient home by allowing the lender to increase the borrower’s income by a dollar amount equal to the estimated energy savings. Your monthly mortgage payments may be slightly higher than a non-EEM mortgage, but you’ll save money over time because your energy bills will be lower.

Borrowers can not only qualify for a larger loan or a better home, but also can increase the potential resale value of their home by going solar. Sellers can sell their home more quickly by making the home more affordable to more people who want solar power.

To get an EEM, a home doesn’t have to be new. Existing homes can qualify, though attached condos won’t allow the upgrade. Detached condos will usually qualify if the homeowners’ association approves it.

There are also federal tax credits for installing solar energy systems that can make the cost worthwhile. The current tax credit is 30% of the cost with no upper limit, and is available for existing homes and new construction. Principal residences and second homes qualify, but rentals don’t qualify. The tax credit is set to expire Dec. 31, 2016.

The Veteran’s Administration, or VA, offers EEMs to qualified military personnel, reservists and veterans for energy improvements when purchasing an existing home. It caps energy improvements at $3,000 to $6,000.

These mortgages are available for $0 down if you qualify.

Phil Georgiades is the Chief Loan Steward for VA Home Loan Centers. To apply for a VA energy efficient mortgage home loan, visit VA Home Loan Centers or email info@vahomeloancenters.com. If you’re a civilian interested in the program call 877-432-LOAN.

For sale sign photo CC-licensed by Flickr user thinkpanama.

Solar Decathlon 2013: A Conversation with the Winners

posted by Matthew Wheeland on October 29th, 2013

solar decathlon winner[Editor's note: This is the fourth dispatch by reporter Scott Thill from the 2013 Solar Decathlon in Irvine, Calif. Read the rest of his posts here: Solar Decathlon preview, Solar Decathlon field report, and Solar Decathlon slideshow.]

What should realistic and affordable — but still beautiful and cool — solar homes for the mass market look like in the future? If the Solar Decathlon team from the Vienna University of Technology has anything to say about it, they’ll be modular social creatures capable of adapting to favorable and unfavorable climates.

Team Austria emerged victorious from the Solar Decathlon earlier this month. The team’s sustainability-minded students designed, fielded and crowned their LISI house winner of the Department of Energy’s 2013 Solar Decathlon. More lengthily known as Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation, LISI’s debut in our government’s mostly American competition was an international object lesson in forward-thinking housing and marketing.

As I explained earlier this month in my 2013 Solar Decathlon field report and its photovoltaic photo gallery, Austria’s LISI felt like a high-end housebox with recoverable space wherever one turned, nicely in tune with its exterior and interior territories. I recently corresponded with Team Austria’s architect Philipp Klebert and Sebastian Ortner, who explained how LISI came to be — as well as where solar housing needs to be for coming generations locked in global warming’s crosshairs.

Scott Thill: Congratulations on your debut victory! What do you think helped you stand out from the field?

Team Austria: We had experts in all required fields, be it in media and communications, architecture, market appeal or engineering. Scoring between first and fourth in several categories helped Austria stay on top, and ranking first in the communications category was especially satisfying. But it was not one individual’s work that made the difference, but the effort of the entire team.

ST: LISI merges inside and outside living, and is made entirely of wood. Is there a philosophical dimension to these choices that offer guidance to both students and industry toward more sustainable living?

solar decathlon team austria lisi house

TA: Absolutely! We really tried to consider all aspects of building a house. It’s not only about operating your home in an efficient manner, or being sustainable in your energy consumption. It’s also considering the energy and emissions that go into all steps of a building’s life-cycle, including construction.

ST: Are our current levels of global production and consumption in the housing sector sustainable?

TA: There has been a trend towards more energy-efficient and sustainable homes, since products and their technologies have become more accessible and affordable. We are obviously thrilled about this, and really encourage everybody to participate in this great change that is happening. However, globalization has also seen people moving away from their traditional homes, which are based on optimized adaptation to their natural surroundings. Instead, they aim for foreign designs which appear exciting to them. While we feel that cultural and technological exchange between countries and peoples is pivotal in dealing with so many of today’s environmental and sustainability issues, it is important to make smart,educated decisions about which newly accessible technologies to integrate in our lives.

ST: Your perfect scores on energy balance and hot water helped you to the win. What solutions to these global concerns did you learn through the challenges?

TA: It is important to understand that when it comes to energy production, meeting net-zero standards in one’s own home is important, yet not sufficient. During the day– when the house is producing energy — we can feed the excess energy back into the grid and support commercial buildings and industry infrastructure alike. Therefore, energy balance should not be seen on a single, individual scale, but rather in an urban context of interconnection and exchange.

ST: As a microcosmic look at solar housing innovation, what do you think the field of competitors showed that could prove both helpful and accessible to the global population?

TA: The enthusiasm the teams have shown presenting their new technologies, innovations and concepts to the public was quite visible throughout the competition. Very often, investing in new products or systems can be connected to psychological barriers and lead people to decide against investment. Team Austria, as well as all our competitors, showed finished buildings which truly worked and performed during everyday tasks. This helped with any breakdown of stereotypes visitors might have had. The integration of innovative and renewable technologies offers not only a potential for sustainability, but also one for financial gains in the industry. Higher initial investment costs do pay off, if one chooses not to be shortsighted.

Team Austria victory photo and LISI photo CC-licensed by Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

Infographic: Why and How to Get a Home Energy Audit

posted by Matthew Wheeland on October 22nd, 2013

Why and How to Get a Home Energy Audit? Here at One Block Off the Grid, we’re obviously focused pretty heavily on home solar panels, but for homeowners who are thinking about going solar — or who have just installed a rooftop solar system — cutting your energy use is a critically important way to get the most bang for your solar buck.

Almost every home has weak spots where energy leaks out like a sieve; whether it’s your windows and doors, your water heater, or the insulation in your attic, there are almost inevitably a number of places that are costing you money every month.

The Department of Energy has put together a huge collection of resources about home energy use, and we just came across this nifty infographic that explains the whys and hows of home energy audits.

Whether you’re doing it yourself or hiring a professional, the chart below spells out where to look for energy savings that can cut anywhere from 5 to 30 percent off your monthly energy bill.

Click the image below for a larger version, and you can read more about it at the Department of Energy’s website.

Home Energy Audits 101

A Closer Look at 8 Leaders from the 2013 Solar Decathlon

posted by Matthew Wheeland on October 11th, 2013

Editor’s note: This is one of a series articles by Scott Thill from the 2013 Solar Decathlon in Irvine, Calif. Be sure to check out his list of 6 must-see things at the Solar Decathlon as well as his report from the solar village at the event. For each of these photos below, click the image for a larger version.

Solar Decathlon Team Middlebury

Team Middlebury’s Solar Path

Vermont’s upstart Middlebury College’s $260,000 entrant, Solar Path merged spacious design with high-efficiency living. Passive insulation stuffed with Vermont newspapers and removed solar panels lining an edible, educational walkway rather than the traditional rooftop helped create a zero-net project that helped Middlebury’s ranking. Its team and materials traveled primarily by rail, cutting its carbon footprint by two-thirds.

Solar Decathlon Team Norwich

Team Norwich’s Delta T-90

Middlebury’s Vermont neighbor Norwich fielded the affordability champ Delta T-90, a $165,000 high-efficiency steal. Using cross-ventilation, honeycomb glass and flexible thin-film panels and stripping out a mechanical room entirely gave Norwich a much-needed edge for more realistic green design and living for the mass market.

Solar Decathlon Team Austria

Team Austria’s LISI

Almost entirely composed of wood (albeit 20 percent processed construction grade), Team Austria‘s mostly open solar experiment still felt like an airy high-end home, thanks to recoverable front and back patios. A modular housebox with introverted and extroverted living spaces, LISI boasted impressive energy balance but felt a bit out of reach for the average homeowner living in more compressed neighborhoods.

Solar Decathlon Team Las Vegas

Team University of Las Vegas’ DesertSol

UNLV’s sharply conceived and constructed (but probably unsustainable) DesertSol costs $300k, a dam-load of cash above parched Sin City’s average median home price of $180,000. (Trust me, seasonal desert retreats aren’t going to sound as attractive after another century of climate change.) That said, its water-capture strategy featured a cooling tower, which also fed irrigation and sprinkler systems for the inevitable desert firestorm. Hot.

Solar Decathlon Team Alberta

Team Alberta’s Borealis

Similarly confusing (albeit from across the Canadian border), the also-sharp Borealis fused 40 Canadian Solar panels atop three sensible housing modules and called it a 900-square foot competitor, after banking over 100 kw after a rainy day. The evacuated solar thermal tubes used for hot water and space heating were a bonus, but Team Alberta’s sponsorship from oil kingpins like ConocoPhilips, Shell and Suncor — whose primary business are the Canadian tar sands whose extraction could mean “game over” for the climate, according to NASA scientist James Hansen — left this reporter feeling like dirty fuel.

Solar Decathlon Team Ontario

Team Ontario’s ECHO

I’m a sucker for climate-control apps, especially ones connected to rooftop-mounted weather stations. That bit of digital innovation as well as an integrated mechanical system handling heating, cooling, dehumidification and more helped this Canadian standout vault to the top as the final contests approached. Using a quarter of the average Canadian home’s total energy with none of its CO2 emissions, the ECHO seemed well-built for millennials building their own green nests.

Solar Decathlon Team Capitol DC

Team Capitol DC’s Harvest Home

An architecturally appealing and also practical project, DC’s well-integrated competitor featured an edible garden with an irrigation waterfall, heat-activated Flexinol wire shading and a distributed network of biomedical activity sensors. This is chiefly because the Harvest Home was designed as a rehabilitative home for veterans, and will be donated to San Diego nonprofit Wounded Warrior Homes as a transitional residence. But the home’s camouflage color scheme and marketing iconography felt a bit like overkill, given it is the United States military, and its arguably unnecessary wars, that are among the Earth’s worst polluters.

Solar Decathlon Team Stevens
Team Stevens Institute of Technology’s Ecohabit

While Stevens lacked DC’s patriotic concept, it competed in technological bells and whistles, especially with its smart energy management system and app, which lets homeowners track and moderate the home’s energy settings over time on a mobile device. Its L-shape made for slightly cramped environs, if you’re an insider. But from its exterior HVAC misting system to its integrated PV system and biophase-change material insulation, Ecohabit stood tall.

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