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Real Talk: Can a zero-net-energy home be achieved in Milwaukee?


August 2016

"The first thing to understand about ‘zero-energy homes,’" says Steve Homa of Muskego-based PEA Builders Inc., "is that no home by itself can really ever be zero energy. Whether it be (in) Wisconsin or Arizona, at some point in time it will be too hot or too cold to sustain a comfortable temperature. That is when some external source of energy will be needed — be it a wood stove, swamp cooler or some other fossil fuel source."

The ultimate goal, he continues, is to reduce the energy load on the house as much as possible. And how exactly is that variable measured? The Home Energy Rating System (HERS) index. "It is a national standard set up to test or calculate a home’s energy performance on a scaled system — zero being net zero, and 100 being a standard energy home," Homa explains, adding that PEA has achieved HERS ratings of 35.

"Once you have made the home as efficient as possible, then the road to net zero (or energy producing) is merely a matter of how much solar or other sustainable energy you can add on," he says. Even then, Homa says, the subsequent technicalities are tricky. "The only real way to achieve net zero is to be grid tied with the local utility so that they can buy back your excess energy production," he explains. "If you build a home that can achieve all these goals but is off grid, then at some point in time (at least in Wisconsin) you have to account for days of zero production. A backup generator would then be needed, which technically means you are no longer net zero."

Despite the challenges building a zero-energy home presents, its benefits extend beyond the obvious feel-good factor. Homa says cost savings can range from 5 to 20 percent, depending on what systems are used and how close to net zero a customer wants to achieve — a substantial number given ever-increasing utility costs.

Aesthetically speaking, attractive design, free from clutter or exterior eyesores, is entirely possible. "Many technologies, such as geothermal, are not very visible," says Dave Belman, president of Belman Homes in Waukesha and president of the Metropolitan Builders Association. "Geothermal systems would be built underground, and the furnace is only slightly larger than a conventional furnace. Solar panels are still very visible, but if installed on the back of a home would not drastically affect the outward appearance of the home."

So is it possible to build a zero-net-energy home in Milwaukee? According to Homa, the answer is yes. "It’s possible to achieve a zero-energy home just about anywhere as long as you have the right components," he says. "As a designer of ‘passive solar’ homes in Wisconsin, PEA Builders certainly has the challenge of extreme highs and lows to deal with, but this simply adds to the character and beauty of the design."

Fast Facts

How is energy produced in a high-performance home?

"In a high-performance home, energy is usually produced by PV (solar panels) or wind," explains Homa."This energy can be used directly, stored in batteries for later use, or sold to the power company."

"Believe it or not, Wisconsin is a good location for solar usage and ranks in the top 20 states, mainly due to incentive programs that are available," Belman adds.

What does building a low-net-energy home require?

"To reach a HERS 35 requires careful planning and attention to detail," says Homa, whose company has achieved this rating. "High levels of insulation are very important, but more important is having an airtight home. We also use high solar-heat-gain windows and passive solar design to further reduce our homes’ need for fossil fuels."

Are there any tax breaks for zero-net-energy homes? If so, what are they?

"There are federal tax breaks for solar power — 30 percent off the cost of the system," Belman says. "Wisconsin also offers property tax exemptions, so you don’t pay property tax on the cost of the equipment. (Equipment is) also exempt from state sales tax."

How much more does it cost to build a zero-net-energy home than a traditional home?

According to Belman, roughly 30 to 40 percent more than the cost of a traditional home.



This story ran in the August  2016 issue of: