Zero Net Energy and Affordable Housing

Calistoga apartments“Zero Net Energy” (ZNE) construction is usually associated with the wealthy.  The term ZNE often conjures up images of a posh LEED-certified house with a plug-in sports car in the garage.  However, thanks to Humboldt County residents Sean Armstrong and Michael Winkler, a new breed of Zero Net Energy housing stock is now becoming available to low income residents.

Sean Armstrong is an enthusiastic evangelist for Zero Net Energy Building.  Sean founded an energy company in 2011 to provide consulting for Zero Net Energy design in low-income housing.  He was a Project Manager for six years with a company that developed innovative affordable multifamily ZNE housing and is also a second generation farmer specializing in grass-fed Kunekune pigs.

Michael Winkler is the current mayor of the City of Arcata with eight years of experience on the city’s Planning Commission.  He is a LEED Green Rater, and he has a B.S. in Environmental Resources Engineering and Physics.

Sean and Michael are sticklers for accuracy.  While some people are altering the definition of Zero Net Energy and only counting carbon emissions from electricity used by a building (ignoring carbon emissions produced from natural gas on-site), Sean and Michael prefer to use the international definition of Zero Net Energy, which prohibits on-site combustion of fossil fuels.  In other words, they design buildings to be truly carbon neutral.

I spoke with Sean on a Wednesday morning about the attributes of his ZNE projects.  One of the first things that Sean wanted to discuss was the virtue of going all-electric.  In combination with solar panels, Sean’s housing projects make sun-powered heating and cooling very affordable for the low-income residents who live there when compared with natural gas costs.  Of course, adequate insulation is key at the start in order to reduce the demands on the heating and cooling system.

Sean also stressed that he prefers to use readily available technologies, such as LED and CFL lights, standard Energy Star all-electric appliances, and heat pumps in his projects.    As previously mentioned in the first Pathway to ZNE article in this series, a heat pump is essentially a transporter that moves heat from one place to another.   Even in air that seems cold, heat energy is present. When it’s cold outside a heat pump extracts this outside heat and transfers it inside. When it’s warm outside, it reverses directions and acts like an air conditioner, removing heat from your home.

Sean and Michael’s portfolio of ZNE projects includes ten projects in all with six in Northern California, including an apartment complex in Calistoga (48 units for farm workers) and one in Fort Bragg (29 apartments, now the largest ZNE single family housing development in the US).  In addition, there are 32 apartments for farm workers under construction in Cloverdale.

Monica Garibay is Community Manager of one of the complexes designed by Sean and Michael.  She says of living at the apartments:

“Not only do I and the residents appreciate the incredibly low cost of utilities, I and the residents love knowing that by lowering our carbon footprint, we are helping to preserve the beauty of Calistoga, Napa Valley and the overall environment.”

 To start on your path to Zero Net Energy or to learn more about energy-saving programs available to low-income residents, contact the SCEIP office at 707-565-6470.



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Sonoma County Energy Independence Program
2300 County Center Dr.,
Suite A105
Santa Rosa, California

Phone: (707) 565-6470
Fax: (707) 565-6474