A net-zero energy building (NZEB) is a building with zero net energy consumption, meaning the total amount of energy used by the building annually is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site. Under California’s Building code, Title 24, all new residential construction is to be Zero Net Energy by 2020 with all new commercial buildings achieving this goal by 2030. In a sense, all California building owners are already somewhere on the path to Net Zero Energy, even if they are only at the beginning. This series will follow inspired Sonoma County residents on their journey toward Net Zero Energy. Many of the technologies discussed can be financed by the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program (SCEIP). Contact the SCEIP office at 707-565-6470 or visit sonomacountyenergy.org for more details.
Andy Ferguson is a Zen Buddhist scholar with an engineering background. He has a casual demeanor, a passion for his granddaughter, and a restlessness that manifests itself in his efforts to reduce his carbon footprint and his involvement with local sustainability initiatives.
We sit in Andy’s kitchen and drink tea and I ask Andy to tell me about his journey down the Zero Net Energy path. He tells me that it all started with buying an electric car in October of 2012 (after initial skepticism). Andy decided that the next step would be to power his electric car with solar, so he started shopping for panels. Once the panels were installed, he realized it was time for some energy efficiency upgrades to free up more of his home’s solar capacity for powering his car.
In January of 2014 his wife, Lisa bought a plug-in Prius, adding to household electricity use and further motivating Andy to find ways to save energy elsewhere. Since the solar was installed, Andy has made it a personal quest to run as much of his house off of his solar panels as possible – why not use this free clean energy?
Next Andy addressed heating and cooling. He remembered that back in the 1980’s when he and Lisa lived in Singapore and Hong Kong, they noticed the widespread use of electric heat pumps (aka “ductless mini-splits”) for heating and cooling. After doing insulation around windows and in the attic, Andy decided to try installing one. He discovered that they are quite common in North America and most HVAC contractors know about them. When properly installed, an air-source heat pump can deliver up to three times more heat energy to a home than the electrical energy it consumes.
In order to take full advantage of his solar panels, Andy also installed an electric heat pump water heater. When installing it, Andy realized that the temperature of the air in the garage is quite cold in the winter and that pulling warm air in from the attic to heat the water would be much more efficient. Thus, he ran the water heater duct up into the attic and put a timer on the duct fan that turns on around noon – when the air in the attic warms to about 85°F. Next Andy replaced his washer and dryer with new high efficiency ones. He checked consumer reports for details on energy usage before making a purchase.
Andy’s solar panels now power 100 percent of his daytime energy use as a result of the move to high efficiency electric appliances. Andy even has an “induction cook top” that he uses in his kitchen in lieu his natural gas stove. Andy’s use of natural gas and electricity from the grid has plummeted since making these changes. He’s also saving a lot of money, and insists that he is “pretty much a cheapskate.”
|Before energy upgrades (annual energy use):
||After energy upgrades (annual energy use):
Despite all these savings, Andy continues to tweak these technologies and his behavior to further reduce his energy use. For example, now he mostly line dries his clothes. Last year he decided he might as well save some water while he was at it, so he installed a greywater system, which local nonprofit Daily Acts helped him install (through workshops that teach Sonoma County residents how to do so). He also acquired some rainwater barrels to capture rainwater from his rooftop.
Andy says that despite the deep cuts in energy use, his quality of life has greatly improved. His house is much more comfortable and his energy bills are much lower.
The Sonoma County Energy Independence Office, part of the County’s Energy and Sustainability Division, acts as a one-stop shop for residential and commercial property owners to find resources to help them go solar and to save energy and water. It provides a variety of services including Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing for energy and water upgrades. To start on your path to Net Zero Energy, contact the SCEIP office at 707-565-6470 or visit sonomacountyenergy.org.
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