Energy-Efficient Homes: Shelters From the Storm
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Experts say the cost of home energy efficiency is largely offset by the savings over time in fuel and utility bills.
George Keithan calculates that his solar and other energy-efficient components, which cost $40,000, will pay for themselves in eight years, thanks to greatly reduced energy bills and incentives that helped defray the initial outlay: a rebate from CL&P’s new construction program, a 35 percent rebate from the Connecticut Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority (CCEFIA), and a 30 percent federal tax credit for installing solar and geothermal systems. Anthia Nickerson estimates that state and federal incentives cut the cost of their system by two-thirds.
Some Connecticut homeowners are realizing gains sooner. Through an arrangement with CL&P, Keithan receives credits for the energy his system generates on sunny days, then uses those credits to power the house on cloudy days and at night. In addition, at the end of the year he says he receives a small check from CL&P for the extra energy he produces, which the utility supplies to other homeowners.
“I’m selling electricity to my neighbor during the day and buying it back from CL&P at night,” Keithan says, adding that he hasn’t paid for power since moving into the house.
Last fall, in the wake of the massive and prolonged power outages of 2011 and early 2012, the state amped up efforts to market energy efficiency to homeowners throughout the state.
In September, CCEFIA launched Solarize Connecticut, a pilot program to encourage residential solar power. The first phase of the program included four towns—Durham, Fairfield, Portland and Westport—chosen from the 10 communities that applied. CCEFIA supplied a list of authorized installers from which the towns made their selections. Residents who signed up for the program received free site inspections and tiered prices on solar-panel systems: The more who signed up, the lower the price of the individual systems.
By mid-January, when phase one ended, some 300 homeowners from the four communities had contracted for solar installations—well beyond what had been done in the previous seven years in the state, for roughly 25 percent less than the normal cost.
In Fairfield, a coastal town particularly hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy, 76 residents signed up to lease or purchase solar panel systems. Elsewhere, contracts totaled 58 in Westport, 45 in Portland and in Durham, an agricultural community of 7,400 without access to natural gas, 117 with BeFree Solar, a local installer.
Phase two of Solarize Connecticut, currently underway, runs until mid-July and includes Bridgeport, Canton, Coventry and, in a joint partnership, Windham and Middlefield.
Gradually, climate change is altering the way we view our environment here in Connecticut. Areas of the state long considered highly desirable sanctuaries from the stresses of daily life—the beaches and forests—are increasingly being viewed with wariness as residents cope with storm surges, flooding, fallen trees and downed wires.
And despite all the energy-efficiency programs and incentives, a growing band of homeowners is putting less stock in their local utility companies and more in higher powers: that is, solar, wind, geothermal heat—and their own instincts for survival.
For all the efficiencies they have brought into their homes, the Nickersons in Darien and Keithans in Killingworth remain connected to the utility grid. But up in the northwest corner of the state, architect Wes Wyrick left conventional living five years ago for a small, passive solar saltbox he designed for himself and his wife on 40 acres in Kent that operates entirely off the grid.
The house’s long, high expanse of southern-exposed roof and central fireplace make it an ideal passive design—and a traditional New England one—that’s efficient to heat.
The foundation of the house is slab-on-grade to absorb, store and radiate warmth collected from the sun. Energy is also collected by nine solar photovoltaic panels on the roof that feed a bank of 12 batteries that in turn supply a 48-volt energy system. For backup support there are four Rumford-style fireplaces, a design known for its heat efficiency, and a 25,000-volt Generac generator fueled by a 1,000-gallon propane tank. Well water is drawn by a 220-volt, battery-powered pump. The walk to the front door passes through a large flower garden, watered by roof runoff, that could be pressed into service as a survival garden.
“I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody,” Wyrick says of the lifestyle. “My wife is lukewarm. You have to look at every watt you use. We have all the modern conveniences but we’re cautious about how we use them.”
If there are cost savings to living off the grid, he’s not sure exactly what they are. “It’s tough to calculate on a consistent basis because of the sun,” he says. “Today’s a sunny day and so it’s free.” But, he cautions, “anyone who thinks that the cost of alternative energy is less than traditional energy is fooling themselves.” He figures that the solar panels, storage batteries and the inverter used to supply AC power from the panels cost about $45,000, a reason most solar-power advocates remain tied to the grid. The standby generator cost $11,000.
“All in, I suspect the cost of operating the house is more than a similar-sized conventional house,” he notes, “but this was not the reason for using an alternative system.” It was about self-sufficiency and self-reliance.
“Self-reliance,” Wyrick muses, sounding like a hybrid Henry David Thoreau and Martha Stewart, “is a good thing.”