|(All photos from the Sol blog.)|
This week the New York Times had an article about Sol, a modern and very green development on the outskirts of Austin. (Sol, by the way, is both the Spanish word for "sun" and also an acronym for "Solutions-Oriented Living"...clever, no?) The article is well worth a read, not only for the specifics of the homes' energy-efficient features and the interesting history of the development through the ups and downs of the real estate market, but also because of how it addressed the concepts of "net zero" and "net zero-capable." (Apparently Sol had initially marketed itself as Austin's first net zero community, but the economic downturn led the developers to abandon that goal.)
According to the article, the U.S. Department of Energy defines "net zero-capable" as a house that uses 55% less energy than a typical house built in 2006. The article also mentioned that the City of Austin has a goal of making all new construction in the city net zero-capable by 2015, which caused us to wonder how that concept applies to large homes (is it based on the average energy use of all houses built in 2006? Scaled to the size of the house?), but I was unable to find anything on the Department of Energy website to explain what 2006 house or houses they use to set that standard.
Anyhoo, all Sol houses are net zero-capable, with energy-efficient windows, spray foam insulation, well thought-out design to deal with Austin's heat, and other green features. However, only one house of the eleven that have been built so far is actually net zero(ish), with a geothermal system that reduces its energy usage and solar panels to supply nearly all of the power.
Net zero(ish) isn't exactly a technical term, but it's an important term to me because that's exactly how I would describe our house. I'm pretty sure we'll still have to buy some electricity at certain parts of the year -- although I don't know for sure because we still haven't received a bill since our solar panels started up in October (ongoing billing system glitch) -- but since we won't owe anything most months, I think our house definitely qualifies as net zero(ish). (What we do know is that, since our panels started generating on October 20, we've put about 150 more kilowatt-hours into the grid than we've taken from it.)
But back to Sol. While the modern aesthetic wouldn't be my first choice, I really dig the way the homes all have these courtyards to maximize the living space (the houses are tiny -- most of the floor plans are under 1,500 square feet).