Let There Be (Renewable) Light - Tahoe Quarterly
The City of Roseville has been hot news lately—not just for its soaring population, but also for its solar boom. Roseville, where Sacramento creeps into the foothills, aims to have 10 to 20 percent of its new homes built with integrated solar panels and energy-efficient features such as upgraded insulation, test-tight ducts, energy- and water efficient water heaters and certified Energy Star appliances. To spark the trend, the city-owned utility Roseville Electric offers developers pocketbook incentives that can amount up to $8,500 in savings per home. In anticipation, more than 100 new solar homes have been completed in subdivision developments since 2001. Currently, a subdivision project for 635 new solar and energy-efficient homes, built by Lennar, is under construction in the West Roseville Specific Plan Area.
"For a city of 105,000, that's not too bad," says Vonette McCauley, Roseville Electric's public relations manager. "We understood the future was going to include renewables. We need to think creatively about what we can do to reduce our consumption."
Roseville has good reason to jump on the solar bandwagon. It is the fifth fastest growing city of its size in the nation. Projections indicate the greater Sacramento region, including Roseville, will grow by 1.7 million residents by 2050—nearly doubling its current population. Some 840,000 homes will have to be built, according to recent study results, doubling the number of single-family homes to around 1.5 million. Roseville will see approximately 41,000 of these new housing units. If progressive thinking about saving energy isn't applied, it could be goodbye farmland and rural atmosphere, hello traffic snarls and asthma for Roseville.
Could such economic incentives be applied to this region of the Sierra? They are not currently available, despite the fact that the Northern Sierra and Northern Nevada are ideal parts of the country for harnessing solar energy. Perhaps a look at what Roseville and a few other communities are experiencing will stimulate interest in similar broad-scale programs locally.
To avoid soaring energy consumption, Roseville Electric is offering $4 per watt rebates for solar panels installed in new or retrofitted homes. Homebuilders will also receive $500 in rebates for energy-efficient measures. Solar panel systems can produce more energy than a household needs, and excess power will be credited to the homeowner on the bill.
Conservation efforts really do save homeowners money, according to McCauley. Studies indicate that homes with solar panels and energy-efficient features can reduce utility bills up to 50 percent. The average usage in Roseville—for all homes, including apartments, condos, smaller older houses and big houses as large as 5,000 square feet—is 790 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month. In a new solar neighborhood built by Premier Homes, the average use for homes (more uniform in size than the average customer base) has been 430 kWh per month, according to McCauley. Homeowners may pay more up front for solar panels and higher quality appliances, windows and heating systems. But as the costs of heating the energy-efficient home remain lower than costs for standard homes, the homeowner eventually recoups the initial investment and saves money in the long run.
Roseville Electric has already worked with homebuilders to produce solar homes in two subdivisions so far. Lennar Homes was the first national homebuilder to make a large commitment to solar and energy efficiency in the Roseville area, through the Preferred Home Diamond program. Yet many more builders are watching how the Lennar project plays out and have shown great interest. So far, the public has paid attention too, according to McCauley.
A few miles away, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is also offering energy efficiency incentives to developers. A new community by Treasure Homes, the Fallen Leaf at Riverbend subdivision north of the Sacramento River near Interstate 5, has completed 17 energy-efficient homes with photovoltaic (PV) panels integrated into the roof. It has 7 more under construction, and 8 more lots ready for construction. The project was achieved through strong partnership between the utility district and the builder.
"SMUD provides technical support," explains Jim Bayless, president of Treasure Homes. "It connects us with solar equipment providers, assists in advertising, gives us priority service in subdivision planning, and provides a rebate program to help make solar power and other energy-saving features more affordable." The energy efficiencies added about $15,000 to building costs, he says.
"Compared to other new homes in the area, our home prices generally reflect that cost differential," Bayless says. "Our homeowners save on utility bills, live in a more comfortable home and reduce their impacts on the environment. They get a federal income tax credit, and can also anticipate higher resale values because of these features."
PV solar panels installed in the roof are perhaps the largest visible improvements. But the new homes also include dual flushing toilets that can save up to 20,000 gallons of water a year, radiant heat barriers that can reduce energy consumption by up to 35 percent during peak hours, tank-less water heaters that save up to 50 percent in energy costs, and smaller pipes that hold less cold water to be pushed out of the way before hot water reaches the tap. In addition, there are General Electric Energy Star appliances, efficient lighting systems, dual-paned windows with specially coated glazing to reduce radiant heat gain and loss, and gas fireplaces that burn cleanly without producing particulates. Outside, landscaping is designed to consume less water.
The Roseville and Sacramento area programs are riding a surge of interest in renewable energy in California. Last summer, California Governor Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 1, creating a $3.35 billion solar program to install 3,000 megawatts (MW) of PV systems in California.
Working hard on this legislation was a San Francisco–based group, Vote Solar, which assists municipal utilities in developing and implementing solar programs. With Vote Solar help, the City of San Diego changed its permitting program to give priority to construction projects using on-site renewable energy sources (50 percent for residential homes, 30 percent for commercial). In 2001, voters in San Francisco, tired of blackouts, high prices and neighborhood power plants, approved a $100 million bond initiative that paid for solar panels, energy efficiency and wind turbines for public facilities. The first project implemented, the Moscone Convention Center, now has a 675 kilowatt (kW) system on its roof, according to Vote Solar. In Richmond, Vote Solar worked with the Solar Richmond campaign, which persuaded the city council to set a goal of installing 5 MW of PV power on municipal, commercial and residential buildings by 2010. Farther away, the 2004 Honolulu City Council approved a $7.85 million bond to install solar and energy efficiency measures in city buildings. And in 2005, New Mexico passed a $20 million bond for solar and energy efficiency technologies in state buildings.
But around Lake Tahoe, the surge is still but a swell. The utility companies serving the North and South shores do not currently have incentive programs for subdivision developers, although the Truckee Donner Public Utility District (PUD) soon will be implementing a rebate to anyone installing PV systems, and Sierra Pacific Power Company has created a Solar Generations program offering rebates of between $2 and $5 for residences, small businesses and public facilities that install PV systems on Tahoe's Nevada side. There are also incentive and rebate programs for homeowners replacing old energy-hog appliances with new reduced-energy users.
In the absence of financial carrots, members of the Tahoe building community are moving forward on their own. East West Partners is responsible for the largest number of green buildings completed to date in the Tahoe-Truckee area, according to Scott Terrell, planning director at the Truckee Donner PUD. The East West commercial buildings in Old Greenwood and Gray's Crossing developments are certified by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for renewable materials and energy efficiency measures, Terrell says. Elsewhere, the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District built energy efficiencies into its Alder Creek Middle School, and numerous projects in the works will be incorporating similar renewable or recycled materials and energy-efficient features, including buildings planned by the USDA Forest Service, Sierra College, the Truckee Donner Recreation and Park District and Northstar-at-Tahoe. Anticipating a very high percentage of "green square feet" per capita, Truckee may soon achieve a hoped-for distinction of being the greenest small town in America.
"Probably every month there's a new green building being conceived in this area," Terrell says. "Green building has to happen. We don't have a lot of time to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions on this planet. Sometime soon, these so-called alternative buildings will be the only buildings that make sense for the future."
The Truckee Donner PUD will expand its own role by implementing a program in January 2008 offering a $2.80- per-watt rebate for anyone installing a PV system. Solar panels for the Sierra Nevada must meet certain requirements, including standards for snow load. Some homeowners are installing pole-mounted systems separate from their homes, Terrell says. The panels are pitched, and some are even designed to rotate while they track the sun. But they're not inexpensive, costing around $10 per watt. This translates to between $30,000 and $40,000 to buy and install a standard system, according to Chris Worcester with Solar Wind Works of Truckee, who notes that considerable tax rebates and incentives like Senate Bill 1 will help with affordability.
Also fueling interest is Truckee's Sierra Green Building Association, or SiGBA, advocating environmental design in northern California and Nevada with an active membership and abundant educational material and resources on its Website, www. sigba.org. Additionally, SiGBA produces the annual Regional Green Building and Living Resource Guide and partners with the Truckee Donner PUD to host the annual Truckee Home and Building Show and Green Building Symposium, helping homeowners to explore and make environmental choices.
Truckee organizations aren't the only progressive thinkers about construction around Lake Tahoe. "Lake Tahoe is going green with several projects," Terrell says. Tahoe Vista's Wild Goose restaurant, redesigned for East West Partners, incorporated green features; the University of Nevada, Reno recently finished a green 4-H Camp in Stateline; and the new Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences in Incline Village is considered one of the greenest buildings in the world.
In South Lake Tahoe, the city's planning department offers no incentive programs for solar installations—planners have been focusing much of their energy on water quality issues, according to Hilary Hodges, the city's planning manager. However, the city is looking at smart growth and green building issues as part of the Pathway 2007 process and in the Tahoe Valley Community Plan for the redevelopment of the "Y" area. The city is also working with Tahoe Development in hopes that a new $500 million convention center on Highway 50 will receive U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification. The convention center, expected to seat up to 4,400 people, is part of a Stateline-area redevelopment plan in the northeast section of South Lake Tahoe that includes two condominium hotels, retail shops and a pedestrian underpass to the Heavenly gondola. In its entirety, the 570,000 square foot project covers 11.36 acres along Highway 50 and Cedar, Stateline and Friday avenues. Preparation of the land is underway, with construction expected this May.
For many advocates of energy-efficient housing, a key ingredient for success is patience, not the incentive programs. "From a financial perspective, the payback may take several years," says Bayless of Treasure Homes. "But we believe that, for most people, the payback value of solar is more clear-cut than that of a hybrid car. As energy prices rise and energy policies (such as time-of- use billing) evolve, the payback for solar will continue to improve. The industry is also continuing to drive down costs and improve system performance. However, for some homebuyers, the greatest benefit is the peace of mind in knowing that you are doing all you can to reduce your impact on the environment."