Photo: Photos By Michael Macor / The Chronicle
Starting in 2020, California officials want all new houses built in the state to generate their own solar power during the day and sip electricity at night, their energy use cut by highly efficient insulation.
Brandon De Young figures he has that deadline beat by more than a year.
The Fresno-area developer is building an entire neighborhood of 36 homes capable of generating as much energy as they use in a year, a concept known as zero net energy. Designed with the help of an energy-industry think tank, the homes won’t just meet the state’s 2020 building requirements — they’ll exceed them.
“This is how to advance, how to change the way we build homes and bring it into the modern age,” said De Young, whose family-run business, De Young Properties, was founded 44 years ago.
The company started including solar arrays on all of its homes more than two years ago and first tried building a zero net energy house in 2013. When the California Energy Commission voted this month to require solar on almost all new houses after Jan. 1, 2020 — and upped efficiency standards for the homes themselves — the company already knew how to make the new rules work.
“We in the building industry have known what this upcoming code would require for at least one or two years now, because they develop it so far in advance,” De Young said. “I don’t think builders will have a challenge meeting it.”
Photo: Michael Macor / The Chronicle
An experience center demonstrates the homes’ energy features to prospective home buyers.
But the new standards come at a price. By the commission’s estimate, they will add $9,500 to the up-front cost of a new home, at a time when many Californians already can’t afford to buy. The homes will save money over time by slashing their owners’ utility bills, a big selling point in the broiling Central Valley, but the higher initial price may pose a problem for builders and buyers alike.
“Trying to swallow the pill of adding $10,000 to the cost of a home when profits are already getting squeezed — that’s going to be tough for a lot of builders,” De Young said.
The new neighborhood under construction in Clovis (Fresno County), called De Young EnVision, will operate as a kind of real-world lab for the Electric Power Research Institute.
The Palo Alto nonprofit, which performs research for the utility industry, wanted to see what would happen when an entire community is built to zero net energy standards. The institute will monitor and analyze data on how much electricity the homes produce on their own and use from the grid.
“It’s supposed to be a snapshot of what we’ll see in 2020, so that everyone can get prepared for it — homeowners, builders, utilities,” said Ram Narayanamurthy, a technical executive on the institute’s power utilization team.
And yet, neither the institute nor the company wants the neighborhood’s future residents to feel like lab rats. Although they are still under construction, about three-quarters of the houses have already been sold, De Young said, at prices ranging from $350,000 to $450,000. The first of them should be ready for occupancy in the third quarter of this year.
“The biggest thing is to make sure that the homeowners don’t feel like they’re in an experiment,” Narayanamurthy said. “This is going to be their home.”
The Energy Commission’s new standards have been widely embraced by developers, solar companies and renewable power advocates, who see in them a potent way to fight climate change. Buildings represent California’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, behind only transportation, when the electricity they use is factored in.
And yet some critics have questioned the wisdom of requiring a specific technology — rooftop solar arrays — on almost every new home. UC Davis energy economist James Bushnell noted that other, larger forms of solar generation, such as large-scale photovoltaic power plants that sell electricity to utility companies, are much more cost-effective.
While advocates counter that home solar arrays reduce the need for costly new infrastructure, like electric transmission lines, the fact that people still argue about the technology’s full costs and benefits indicates that it shouldn’t be required, he said. Although the Energy Commission’s new building standards leave some wiggle room — for instance, allowing a developer to create a shared solar array for a neighborhood — it would still require panels on most new single-family homes.
“If there’s room for debate, we shouldn’t be mandating a technology,” Bushnell said. He’s more comfortable with other elements of the new building code that require better insulation and windows to keep a home’s energy use low.
“Those are no-brainer choices that people would make, and we’re saving them time by mandating it,” Bushnell said. “But rooftop solar doesn’t come close to that.”
Energy Commission members, however, felt that solar prices had fallen far enough in recent years to make the requirement cost-effective and were likely to fall more.
“There’s a virtuous cycle in all this,” said Commissioner Andrew McAllister. “We’re at a great place in the solar market, and we already produce great buildings in California.”
De Young EnVision homes will feature solar arrays varying in size from 5 to 8.5 kilowatts. The arrays will come from Tesla, the electric automaker that bought SolarCity in 2016. Some of the homes will have batteries, Narayanamurthy said.
None of them will use natural gas to heat water or air, relying instead on electricity and heat pumps. Buyers will have the option of a gas range on the stove or an electric induction cooktop, De Young said.
“It’s a great technology, but we understand that not everyone knows about it,” he said. “People love their gas cooktops around here.”
Eliminating almost all natural gas use will allow the homes to be more efficient than the Energy Commission’s new standards require. While the commission’s standards try to balance out electricity use within a home, they still allow for natural gas space and water heaters. They aim for zero net electricity rather than zero net energy, De Young said. The new EnVision homes shoot for the latter.
He is careful, however, not to overpromise.
Although the homes are designed to achieve zero net energy status, whether they actually do so will depend on the people who live in them, not to mention the weather.
“Do they have five kids? Do they have no kids? Do they have an electric vehicle? What if it’s a cloudy year?” De Young asked. “There’s a lot of factors in that.”