This blog explores changes in the energy industry from an insider’s perspective as it transitions from the old centralized utility model to the new paradigm of distributed generation.
This blog was previously called Inside the Housing Evolution and focused on energy efficient homes. Ultimately, it’s all linked. Soon, every building will have the potential to generate, store, and sell energy. Welcome to the era of the transactive grid – the greatest shift the electricity sector has seen in over 100 years!

January 11, 2011 No Comments

Is Renewable Energy Suitable for Low-Income Housing?

There have been a number of examples of net-zero energy homes built across the country that showcase that it is possible to successfully integrate renewable energy into new home construction.  The main drawback to date has been the cost, with these high-performance homes typically costing $100,000 – $150,000 more than traditional homes.  Now there’s a group out of Jersyville, Illinois, (Capstone Dev. Group LLC), that has announced their plans to build a community of 32 net-zero energy homes targeted specifically for low-income families (to qualify to rent one of these homes your household income must be less than $41,000 US per year).  Apparently the developer has been able to leverage a number of Municipal, State, and Federal grants geared towards low-income housing in order to make the financing affordable.

Now this is a great concept in theory, but I am very sceptical that this project will actually be as affordable as the developer is claiming.  The technologies that the developer has chosen include using Solar Photo-Voltaics for winter heating, and Vertical Axis Wind Turbines.  For those that don’t know, these are both extremely poor applications of renewable technologies.  PV panels create high-grade electricity- if you want heat it’s much better to go with a cheaper Solar Thermal or Geothermal system.  As for Vertical Axis Wind Turbines, this “technology” is bunk.  They are extremely inefficient and have never been proven to work as well as their design specs indicate in third-party testing.  (This is opposed to the typical Horizontal Axis Wind Turbines which have a long and proven track record).  As if that’s not enough, only 2 homes in the development have their solar panels facing South- the other 30 have them facing East or West, which is much more inefficient.

This project has all the markings of a classic snake-oil salesman who knows all the right things to say, but is really selling a lot of hot air.  Kudos to the guy for convincing the government departments to give him the grants, but I hope he has his ticket to Bermuda booked before they realize that he can’t deliver on his promises.

There will be a time when renewable energy is affordable for everyone, but we aren’t there now.  Throwing public dollars at an ill-conceived project like this is a waste of resources.  Creative financing and the use of grants can make renewable energy more affordable, but at least for the time being the market will be led by high-income early adopters who are willing to pay more to have the best technologies installed in their homes as a luxury item.

More importantly, developers need to understand the technologies that they are installing so they can choose the most appropriate technologies for the application.  Urbandale Construction is located in Ottawa which has long, cold winters and short but very hot summers.  We know that the most cost-effective energy efficiency measures for this climate are not necessarily the most glamorous.  We focus on additional insulation in the building envelope, Heat Recovery Ventilators to pre-heat incoming fresh air, and high-efficiency mechanical equipment.  For people that are willing to spend a little more to get an even more energy efficient house, we would recommend Ground Source Heat Pumps, Drain Water Heat Recovery, and either Solar Thermal or Tankless systems for water heating.  Solar Photo-Voltaics and Wind Turbines may sound sexy, but if they aren’t used appropriately they can be a very costly mistake.

Posted by Matthew

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Matthew Sachs

P. Eng. LEED AP

  • COO of Peak Power since July 2016
  • General Manager of Urbandale Construction (May 2008 – Oct 2014)
  • Vice-Chair R-2000 Renewal Committee
  • Member of Energy Star Technical Advisory Committee
  • Greater Ottawa Homebuilders Green Committee
  • Recipient of Canadian Homebuilder’s Association 2009 R-2000 Builder of the Year Award
  • Participant in Natural Resources Canada’s Technology Roadmap for Sustainable Housing
  • Energy Consultant with Marbek Resource Consultants (Feb 2002 – May 2006)

ABOUT PEAK POWER

Peak Power is a Microgrid project development company focused on delivering innovative solutions to offset the most expensive hours of electric demand. We specialize in optimizing the revenue streams from energy storage, advanced building automation, and renewable technologies for customer sited and utility scale projects. Please visit www.peakpowerenergy.com.