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Zero Net Energy and Affordable Housing

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Zero Net Energy and Affordable Housing

By Stacey Meinzen

“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 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 the affordable housing developers who invented multifamily ZNE and he 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 Planning Commission. He is a CABEC and CalCERTS Certified Energy Analyst, a HERS Rater and LEED Green Rater, and he has a B.S. in Environmental Resources Engineering and Physics. He was the Technical Lead for the world’s first cell phone system, and he’s also a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Engineer.

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. If the 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion was not enough to convince you that an all-electric house might be worth considering, perhaps the cost to power one might. 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.

The last thing Sean talked about was a patent-pending energy display that changes behavior through color and light. Two indicators on a scale from green to fuchsia tell you how much energy you’re using. The closer you are to green, the less energy you’re using. Sean felt that this energy display is a game changer because it does not require the user to read complex graphs.

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.”