At an undisclosed location in Albemarle County last month (ooh, it’s fun being a reporter!), I got to see an impressive number of solar panels being installed on the roof of homeowners Richard and Melissa King. Thirty-six panels, in fact. They nearly cover the south roof face of this 2,500-square-foot house, which is being built on a fairly ordinary lot in a small, quiet subdivision. It was a blazing hot afternoon and a crew of workers—many of them Virginia Tech students involved in the 2009 Solar Decathlon program—clung to the steep slope of the roof, passing tools back and forth as they installed the bottom row of 12 PV panels.
Charles Hendricks, an architect with Gaines Group, the designers of the house, stood next to me in the gravel driveway and explained the “net zero” idea: In the daytime, the house will take care of its own energy needs through these panels—causing the electric meter to run backward. At night, it’ll pull energy from the grid, and the meter rolls forward. At the end of the year, the numbers are supposed to balance out.
It’s not just the panels that make it work. Passive solar features mean the house needs less energy in the first place—larger roof overhangs provide shade in the summer, while a big stone wall across from south-facing windows absorbs heat in the winter. Hendricks put it in these terms: His own standard-built house uses about 1700 kw of electricity per month, while the net zero house should be able to get by with the 700 kw per month its solar panels will produce. Hendricks thinks it’ll be the first net zero house in the area—a nice feather in the cap of Richard King, who happens to direct the Solar Decathlon program.
“For scale it’s way too big for two people,” said Hendricks with a little grin, as we toured the spacious interior. The owner and his wife will live here alone, with occasional visits from grandkids, but their place is not exactly not-so-big. Evidence, perhaps, that even enthusiastic alt-energy types aren’t necessarily purists.
On the other hand, it’s eminently practical that a crew of college students can be trained to install these panels in—according to the Tech students’ professor, Robert Dunay—a 15-minute briefing from the homeowner earlier that morning. “A designer needs to know about the building process so they can be informed when they make their drawings,” Dunay says, praising the opportunity for his students to get some boots-on-the-roof experience. (Wayne Mawyer is the builder overseeing the project generally.)
A final note on net zero: Other than the distinctive profile of 36 PV panels, this house looks like any other house in any other Albemarle subdivision. I found it aesthetically ho-hum, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s been pointed out before that “green building” has made a definite split with “looks like hippies live there,” but it’s a shift that still fascinates me. It promises a future of more efficient mainstream life.
Who out there’s cool enough to have a PV panel already saving you money? Anybody else thinking about it?