Solar Homes Everyone Can Afford

Want to build solar homes that cost less than $100,000 and have a monthly energy bill of less than $25? Find out how the Building America program is making solar houses more affordable.

| December 2004/January 2005

  • Alternative Energy
    Modular homes in Atlantic City, N.J., that are being tested as part of the Zero Energy Homes program.
    Photo courtesy Martin Photography
  • Green Building
    Bethel Drive in Lenoir City, Tenn., where four solar homes are paving the way for energy-independent living.
    Photo courtesy Allen B. Hunt
  • Solar Home
    Jeff Christian, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Buildings Technology Center, on the porch of a Tennessee solar test home that averages total energy bills of just $25 a month.
    Photo courtesy Allan B. Hunt
  • Solar Power
    This chart shows the kind of detailed monitoring conducted on net-zero-energy test homes.
    Courtesy NAHB Research Center 2004
  • Zero-Energy Home
    To find out exactly how well each technology they incorporate functions, the houses are equipped with dozens of sensors that monitor electricity consumption, temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide and hot-water usage.
    Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
  • Green Homes
    Cotton Duncan and Becky Clark, show off their lowest ever monthly energy bill: $11.90
    Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors

  • Alternative Energy
  • Green Building
  • Solar Home
  • Solar Power
  • Zero-Energy Home
  • Green Homes

Super-efficient solar homes are now available that reduce monthly energy bills 50 percent to 70 percent compared to comparable conventional homes, thanks to the design innovations of private-sector pioneers and the U.S. government’s energy gurus. But these trendsetters won’t be satisfied until they’ve perfected “net-zero-energy” home designs.

Net-zero-energy means the homes are super-efficient, with much of their electricity produced by rooftop solar panels; they draw electricity from the grid at night or on cloudy days, but overall they generate at least as much energy as they consume each year. It’s just a matter of time before such homes are truly affordable for the masses, according to Lew Pratsch, Zero Energy Homes project manager for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Pratsch says that within the next decade, zero-energy homes could cost no more than comparable conventional homes. By 2020, he predicts, they could become the building-industry standard.

That’s the exciting news emerging from the DOE-sponsored Building America program, which has built more than 26,000 homes as research projects. Zero-energy homes will incorporate the best energy-efficient strategies and renewable-energy systems, and home designs will be keyed to regional climates. Right now, more than a third of total U.S. electrical use goes to heat and cool our houses, and to power the appliances within. Through the groundbreaking work of the DOE and commercial innovators, we can move steadily toward “energy independence” one home at a time.

“My feeling is we — and the leaders in Washington — should put zero-energy living up there with putting a man on the moon,” says Jeff Christian, director of the Buildings Technology Center, which participates in the Building America homes program through the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. “Let’s make it the grand challenge.”

Today, anyone can have a zero-energy home by paying, upfront, roughly 10 percent to 20 percent more than the cost of a traditional home for renewable-energy technology, which generally has a payback in energy bill savings of about 20 to 30 years. But the grand challenge is making solar homes affordable enough on the front end to become the norm in U.S. neighborhoods, rather than the exception. The goal, Pratsch says, is to lower the cost of such homes across the nation to the point that the expense of the zero-energy technology will be no higher than the monthly energy bill savings — and therefore, the added initial costs will cancel out. Over the long term, there will be additional savings once the mortgage is paid and the lower energy bills keep coming.

Volkswagens & Cadillacs

Net-zero-energy test homes have been built in dozens of cities along the East and West Coasts, where air pollution and electricity demands are the most intense in the country, and many states offer incentives for green building and renewable energy.


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