Green Housing

Green Housing April 27, 2011

Is this a good way forward? Who knows about this and can help us?

To stand out in a still-sluggish housing market, major builders are starting to sell affordable tract homes that come with solar panels and nearly zero utility bills.

On Earth Day Friday, Meritage Homes will begin offering a “net-zero” home that’s designed to produce as much energy as it uses annually. Such homes, starting at $140,000 in Tucson and $160,000 in Las Vegas, will be available in parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and central Texas, where a nine-panel rooftop solar array is already a standard feature. For a $10,000 upgrade, consumers can get 24 more solar panels that could reduce utility bills to zero.

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  • rjs

    Planning a move to the southwest?

    It is an interesting development.

  • Randall

    I am an electrical engineer that designs and manufactures solar panels as well as teaches people to make their own solar panels in areas that are underdeveloped. I am all for increasing the percent of power generation from solar as it is a great alternative if someone lives in the right part of the world. It has limits and in Arizona and Nevada this is fairly viable. Forget areas that has insolation less than 600 watt/meter as it is pricy to shift to under those conditions. In Arkansas the humidity runs so high it cost too much to change a house to solar unless you ‘retrain’ someone to wean themselves down their power appetite. A $10,000 change is a pipedream though, if I could figure that one out I’d be on some magazine cover.

    Given that the Japan nuclear crisis is going to result in further pushback on the cheapest power we had, I think that solar may become a bit more attractive. I would say many all solar homes cost around $40,000 to convert in my neck of the woods. The new grid-tie inverters have helped greatly but, the pressure on silicon and encapsulation materials will start cutting into the oil market in a hurry as many systems to protect panel longevity are based of plastic petroleum based systems and Dupont’s Tedlar was in a world-wide shortage for about 20 months recently prompting a return to silicon based encapsulants in many markets. The new triple junction cells will be a game changer if they can be made on a commercial scale.

    But, I had forgot that the federal energy tax rebate will give a tax credit of 30% of investment on grid-tied UL listed equipment. This does make the economics work better in the marginal parts of the country. The credit rolls over until 2016 as well so it is possible to make a housing comeback work with this if everyone got on board with it.

  • Robin

    Right now the median home price in Tucson is $170,000, so it seems like a bargain. I suspect that original solar installations are significantly cheaper than modifying existing structure since you can optimally engineer the house from the get go and large developers probably get significant discounts over individuals.

    Overall, if the story is accurate this looks like a win-win for everyone.

  • Albion

    Bill McKibben was in town yesterday to promote his book Eaarth and talk about global warming and alternatives to coal, oil and gas.

    He’s on a power grid in rural vermont where energy generated from solar panels on his house can be shared with neighbors down the grid. Also said something about water heating using very simple paneling (different from the solar cells)? Doesn’t think nuclear is really the future. China is building more nuclear power plants than any other country but they’ll provide only a fraction of China’s power in years to come. Alternative forms of energy have to be found.

    So that leaves solar and wind and who knows what else. He’s a protestant liberal who thinks creation care should be at the forefront of our thinking, not least because the people who suffer the most from global warming are the poorest people in the world. His organization,, is trying to do something about carbon emissions. He says 350 ppm is the safe upper limit for CO2 in the atmosphere. We’re already at 390+ and rising each year. The idea is to reduce that level over time. But without the big players in fossil fuel use willing to do anything about it (for example, the House of Representatives just recently passed a resolution saying global warming wasn’t real), the road forward is hard.

    So good to see some effort at reducing dependence on traditional forms of energy.

  • Robin


    If you are in Chicago I assume that no one can help you install enough solar panels to get your utilities down to $0. Might want to look into geothermal or windmills, being that you live in the windy city.

  • Ryan

    This is a marketing sham. I worked in real estate for a number of years in Las Vegas.

    The truth is over 30% of the homes in the community right now are vacant or in the REO process. This means many neighborhoods are akin to ghost towns where there never really occupying owners, but just out of state speculators that got caught with the with out a seat when the music ended.

    The building of any new homes in Las Vegas or most parts of the country right now is the LAST thing that needs to be done. This is simple supply and demand as there are still a massive inventory of homes that we do not have buyers for. Prices are still falling in as the WSJ had an article highlighting today.

    Right now you can get a 2500 sqft home built in 2005 with a pool in a great neighborhood of LV/Henderson for around $130,000. No one is going to fall for the gimmick of buying a home from Meritage for $200K with less sqft, inferior location and no yard or pool, just because they have solar panels.

    The answer is the same as anytime you have a supply and demand problem. Stop making more supply.

  • Randall

    My recommendation for you Scot, since you live in Chicago, is to invest in one of these.

    Invite the neighbors over to workout every evening.

  • DRT

    Albion#4 said the house passed a bill saying Global Warming is not real, so I looked it up, here is the story:

    US House votes to curb climate regulation
    (AFP) – Apr 7, 2011

    WASHINGTON — The US House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill aimed at preventing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

    The 255-172 vote in the Republican-held chamber came a day after the Democratic-led Senate rejected such a move, making it highly unlikely lawmakers will actually move to curb EPA’s regulatory powers.

    US President Barack Obama has already signaled he opposes such a step, but Republicans have said EPA’s moves to limit such emissions could dampen job creation as the economy drags itself out of the worst downturn in 80 years

    But, I also found this fun story from the same day:

    In a 70-28 vote today, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed HB 368, a bill that encourages science teachers to explore controversial topics without fear of reprisal. Critics say the measure will enable K-12 teachers to present intelligent design and creationism as acceptable alternatives to evolution in the classroom.

    The bill’s text, if passed into state law, would protect teachers from discipline if they “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught,” namely, “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” The bill also says that its “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”

  • Albion

    DRT: McKibben may have overstated the matter. This is what another article says about the vote: “The bill the House approved Thursday would reject a 2009 finding by federal scientists that climate change caused by greenhouse gases endangers human health and would prevent the agency from using existing law to regulate heat-trapping pollution.”

    Why reject the findings of federal scientists? Because that might lead to regulation of coal, oil and gas. McKibben did say the energy sector has far away the biggest lobby in Congress. So it stands to reason that any regulation will be opposed regardless of the science because it reduces profit.

    The Tenn. bill is a hoot.

  • DRT

    Ryan#6, ISTM that your argument will hold water depending on the energy cost and environmental impact of building a new house was more (or much more) than the cost of power saved, or the environmental impact of power saved.

    So, if I were to assume that half of the price of a new home was to pay for the power to build that home, then we would have to offset about $80k in power savings (neglecting the environmental impact). If I assume $300 per month in energy charges, then 80k/300 = about 22 years to pay it off.

    If someone were to put value on the decrease in pollutants, then that payoff calculation would decrease the time to payoff.

    Sounds like a reasonable personal preference choice to me.

  • Ryan

    Good points DRT but let me say a few things in response.

    Las Vegas for example, and many places in the southwest, are highly transit. These areas are nothing like the mid-west where people live in the same house for decades; rather people on average in LV live in their homes for under two years.

    On top of that, renewable energy sources often can be very expensive to maintain and repair. So while there is a novelty to them at first, they can be a burdensome to repair in the long run.

    Either way you are right that if someone has a personal preference for such things (and I do as well for that matter) the cost average could make sense over time.

    Yet I would go back to what I believe the post was asking in if this type of thinking could help our housing situation and the answer is no. As Americans we should all be actively rooting right now for builders to build as few new homes as possible.

    I can personally tell you that between Bank of America and Chase alone, there are still millions of homes that will hit the market in the next two years alone.

    If we were to not build another home in the USA for the next four years we would still have more supply than demand. This is a severe problem that we should all be worried about as none of us will seen any meaningful appreciation in our home values until the supply comes down.

  • This is pure pedantry, but how would solar panels eliminate the water bill?

    While I’m all for reducing the impact of your housing, utilities are only one issue. Tract housing is a problem in itself because of the sheer space it takes up. It’s not possible for everyone in the world, or even the US, to live in a free-standing home, with the lifestyle that entails. And once you move people into multi-unit buildings, you lose the roof real estate necessary for the solar panels to be any use. (And, as aforementioned, not everyone lives somewhere sunny enough.)

  • Ryan

    Its actually more than possible Colleen for everyone in the US to live in an average family of four tract housing. Is it ideal, preferred, or best? I would say no.

    But take Nevada for example, more than 89% of the state is still owned by the Federal Government.

  • DRT

    Colleen, while not a total solution, I live on acreage with a well and the only significant cost for water is installation and electricity. This really hits home when a power outage mandates that I hook up my generator so I have water for the , er , water closet.

  • DRT

    Ryan, I basically agree with you and feel that the excess housing needs to be liquidated. Having said that, there is a portfolio effect to things like housing. Specifically, there are people who buy housing for all sorts of reasons and I believe that we need to do two things.

    First, we should offer the full gamut of options that are available. We should give people what they want.

    Second, we should offer programs that steer people toward alternatives that have the long term interest of the world in mind. Granted, that vision may not be 100% right, but it seems reasonable to me that if we are generally trying to pursure avenues that seem to be sustainable that we will achieve the general direction.

  • DRT


    Aren’t you going to do a birther thang!

  • If we are talking the Southwest, it seems water usage/availability is and will be a much more urgent issue than energy production.

    But if they can take advantage of all that sun, go get it.

  • Interesting. I’ve just begun exploring solar panels for use in Maryland. Humidity, I’m assuming from Randall’s comment, reduces the intensity of the sun reaching the panels & therefore their output (photovoltaic panels). My uncle near Madison, WI, has solar panels (& space for them) on his property & they supply all the hot water to his home, most of the time. (with higher humidity & fewer sun hours than the SW by substantial margins!) I’ve more research to do, here, obviously, but our upgrades have been focused on reducing our overall contribution to fossil fuel usage. IMHO, those of us who are able to reduce our impact, should, and not just based on economic & financial ROI analyses.

    DRT, are you making trouble? Well water is mighty cold, dontcha know, especially over the head? 😀

  • Randall

    Ann, Yes I was just saying that panels are sold to all of us with a rating given a 1,000watt/meter standard day and that here in the Ozark mountains, I get 700 watts/ meter so I have to buy 30% more panels to do what someone in Arizona can do. This isn’t to discourage at all. Simply use this map here,

    to determine the power available nominally from a given grid. Yes, I love solar hot water heating and installed a unit on home last year even though I already have a wood fueled water heater.

    And, you’re right, I don’t think this is primarily an economic issue as much as stewardship. What we are doing now has a limited life cycle and we need to move past it for the sake of those less capable to relieve some economic pressure on fossil fuels. God pays the gas bill on the sun and sends the energy free to us. I’m keen of taking advantage of gifts like that.