Power to the people

James
James McLeod
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This house will draw no power from the electricity grid

It doesn’t look like much — just a half-built house at the end of a cul de sac in Flatrock — but the house Jack Parsons is building for his daughter is something altogether new for the province.

Artist’s rendition of a net zero home contractor Jack Parsons is building in Flatrock for his daughter. — Submitted image

It’s called a “net zero” home, and when it’s finished, it will be connected to the electrical grid, but it won’t actually consume any power.

“The net-zero is a fairly basic concept in that you build a house, and at the end of the year you’d have zero consumptions (of energy.)” Parsons explained. “You’re producing what you need.”

The house has thicker walls, and better insulation in the floor and the ceiling, too, so that the entire envelope holds in the most energy.

The windows and the eaves are also carefully placed, to maximize “passive solar” gains — essentially, benefiting from sunlight streaming in during the winter months, but not as much in the summer.

“Maximizing solar doesn’t cost any money. It’s just a thought process,” he said. “If the eave goes down too low, then you’re going to block the sun. But then, you want it to go down low enough to block it in the summertime (when the sun is higher in the sky), but let it in in the winter.”

Parsons, who’s been a contractor for more than three decades, said he’s always tried to build energy-efficient homes. The net-zero house, which incorporates plans for either solar panels or a wind turbine for power generation, is something relatively new, but speaking to The Telegram, Parsons expressed general frustration over the government’s attitude towards energy efficiency.

“I think the province is really failing, because we’re not getting that leadership,” he said. “We’re not getting the leadership on the codes, and we’re not getting the leadership on the technology.”

Official disagrees

Jackie Janes, assistant deputy minister for the province’s Climate Change and Energy Efficiency office, is inclined to disagree.

She pointed to the province’s Turn Back the Tide campaign, and the 80-page guide to building energy-efficient homes the government published earlier this year.

She said the guide gives a lot of really good, technical information for contractors, but the materials on website and a virtual home give basic information to people.

“You can click on a room and for that room all these green spots appear,” she said. “And you click on all these green spots and it tells you how you can improve your energy efficiency, and it gives you links back to the Turn Back the Tide site where there’s more advice.”

Net metering

When it comes to building better homes, Parsons said energy efficiency is the No. 1 goal, but to make it a truly “net zero” house, there will need to be some sort of on-site power generation.

The idea is that when the house is generating more power than it needs, the excess can be sold into the grid, and when it’s not generating enough, it can pull juice from the electricity system.

Right now, that sort of thing isn’t possible; neither Newfoundland Power nor NL Hydro have approved feeding energy back into the grid, but by the end of the year, such arrangements might become a reality.

NL Hydro vice-president Rob Henderson said it’s currently working on something.

Consumer Advocate Tom Johnson said that energy efficiency and individual home choices don’t get the same kind of attention as big-picture energy projects, but if people want to build a windmill or put up solar panels, they should be able to do that.

Both the provincial government and Newfoundland Power also issued statements saying that they’re aiming to have a policy in place by the end of the year.

But Newfoundland Power spokeswoman Karen McCarthy pointed out that there really isn’t as much call for this sort of thing as in other places.

“In other jurisdictions like California, the amount of customer-owned renewable generation is quite high. While the reasons for this can be complicated, it generally is a reflection of the electricity market.  In our province, we enjoy the large majority of our power generation from hydro sources, meaning our power is clean and economical,” she said. “ Many jurisdictions rely on fossil fuels as their main source to generate electricity and therefore local policy may drive customers toward renewable energy options in order to reduce the use of fossil fuels.”

But for Parsons, he said if there was a windmill in the back of most houses, or solar panels on the roof, our electricity system will be healthier for it.

“There’s no need to be building houses today that are putting a strain on the environment, that are putting strain on the utilities,” he said. “We have better use for our power than just putting it into houses and having it wasted.”

Organizations: Newfoundland Power

Geographic location: California

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Recent comments

  • Chad Warren
    February 01, 2014 - 16:40

    This is the only province that doesn't have a solar of wind program or rebates. As well, most provinces have a net metering program. In 2007 this government put into policy that they own the energy rights to the wind and water in this province. I am ashamed that we the people allow this government to control our energy and refuse to let us generate our own power! I guess if you want to sell the Muskrat project to the people of this province, all you need to do is take away their options! Jackie Janes, you should be ashamed of our stance within Canada on renewable energy and incentives!

  • Don Kennedy
    January 21, 2014 - 15:51

    ACAN Windows is supplying the triple glazed double Low E Argon casement and fixed windows for this Net Zero home. These ACAN ENERGY STAR windows are categorized by the Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE) to have the ``Most Efficient Rating`` available and are tested and certified to provide energy savings and comfort to the homeowner. Combining these high efficiency windows with the orientation of the house to maximize the Solar Heat Gain will contribute to reducing the heating costs for the property without compromising on natural light.

  • Winston Adams
    January 21, 2014 - 15:43

    Great to see a discussion on energy efficiency. Net Zero house is the latest and what we can expect for the future. Consider that Muskrat Falls is proceeding on the basis that "efficiency gains for housing has reached saturation". On that lie a project of 8 billion proceeds. On the potential for efficiency see my 3 letters to the Telegram, now available together on the Vision 2041 website under EFFICIENCY. also my presentation to the PUB for the last Nfld Power rate increase last feb. and to the PUB on the Muskrat falls application. or go to EFFICIENCY VERMONT, EFFICIENCY BRITISH COLUMBIA ETC. We are way behind other jurisdictions, and efficiency is key to reducing the PEAK WINTER LOAD to help avoid rotating outages. This is the first media piece by a journalist on this subject, and long overdue. We need a consumer group to advocate for a Real conservation and efficiency plan. This would be a blessing for homeowners..... but why is no political party leading the charge? Is there no one out for the common man?

  • Laura Parsons
    January 21, 2014 - 09:24

    This is my house that we are currently in the process of building. We are first time home buyers and I truly believe that the investments we are making here will be great for our future – both for the environment that we live in and for our wallet. While it is a bigger investment up front, those costs can be incorporated into the mortgage and paid off over time. The savings that we will get from reduced power requirements and reduced waste will more than compensate. One of the big advantages in working on this type of project with K&P is that they balance my environmental instincts with economic return. While I am willing to make sacrifices and pay extra for a better environmental pay-off, they look at each aspect in terms of the payback period and whether it is a worthwhile investment. Our goal is to build a house that can be an example for others in doing things more sustainably and more environmentally friendly – without breaking the bank! We are currently working with MUN and CNA to determine our options for power generation and to work out the design. Because this isn’t being done a lot around the island yet, we want to make sure we have the appropriate design in place to move forward. This again will help pave the way for others looking to follow our lead. As the last commenter said, one persons impact may be small but if more people catch on then it can make a real difference. You may think that recycling a pop can doesn’t really matter but it all adds up, and every little bit helps. --Laura Parsons

  • Laura Parsons
    January 21, 2014 - 09:20

    This is my house that we are currently in the process of building. We are first time home buyers and I truly believe that the investments we are making here will be great for our future – both for the environment that we live in and for our wallet. While it is a bigger investment up front, those costs can be incorporated into the mortgage and paid off over time. The savings that we will get from reduced power requirements and reduced waste will more than compensate. One of the big advantages in working on this type of project with K&P is that they balance my environmental instincts with economic return. While I am willing to make sacrifices and pay extra for a better environmental pay-off, they look at each aspect in terms of the payback period and whether it is a worthwhile investment. Our goal is to build a house that can be an example for others in doing things more sustainably and more environmentally friendly – without breaking the bank! We are currently working with MUN and CNA to determine our options for power generation and to work out the design. Because this isn’t being done a lot around the island yet, we want to make sure we have the appropriate design in place to move forward. This again will help pave the way for others looking to follow our lead. As the last commenter said, one persons impact may be small but if more people catch on then it can make a real difference. You may think that recycling a pop can doesn’t really matter but it all adds up, and every little bit helps. --Laura Parsons

  • Stephen
    January 21, 2014 - 08:02

    It is about time that someone has the same passion for Net Zero as I do there needs to be more talk about this sooner than later before you know it its going to be to late

  • Ian
    January 21, 2014 - 07:20

    I hope this goes though. I've been looking at building a home like this for over a year. With ICF construction built to R40, Solar PV and wind turbines for power generation, and solar thermal water heater system with radiant in floor heating to store as much heat as possible. Its great on paper but doing it off grid means sacrifices, added expenses and uncertainty. Net metering is key to greater comfort and convenience and savings in both system and utility bills. It gives you the flexibly to have an electric range and oven for cooking and use of electric heaters. Solar PV and wind turbines alone could never support those appliances. It saves you the cost of battery storage and charge controllers in your homes electric system. And in utility cost it means all your excess generation is sold to the grid. In the summer you can bank savings and withdraw them when needed in the winter. And it’s even possible to profit from your homes power generation.

  • Jack Parsons
    January 21, 2014 - 06:30

    Firstly I'd like to congratulation James on a great researched article. I found Jackie Janes comment very interesting, "she disagrees". She pointed to a book published by her department on Energy Efficiency, come on Jackie while the book is excellent it is as far from leadership as it gets. Our Provincial Government should be leading instead of downloading to municipalities that don't have the resources to advance housing technologies. Step up to the plate and do what is expected of a provincial government which is NOT the mere publishing of a how to book. Lead and stop downloading.

  • A
    January 20, 2014 - 11:12

    @Roena Marshall they key here is that the house won't be "off grid". It will have a power line but they are hoping that they can sell back unused solar and wind energy into the grid. Solar and wind are not consistent enough to rely upon solely - you can't power your tv in the night with solar, nor can you power anything with wind power when the wind isn't blowing. You can, however, take advantage of the sun when it is up and try to run your dishwasher or washing machine during the day time. If you are not using anything during the day while you are at work, your solar panels are still generating and you can sell back some of that power to the grid - this would enable NL Hydro to turn down Holyrood a (small) notch or allow the hydro reservoirs to refill a little bit. If one person does it it is a negligible gain but if more people start doing it then it could reduce the strain on the overall system.

  • Geri
    January 20, 2014 - 10:18

    I agree with Mr. Parsons. Our government is not doing a very good job with protecting our environment. Guess they only care about the benefits they derrive from status quo...not what our earth will be like for our grandchildren and all future generations. We need some young people in government with a concience!!

  • Jack Robbins
    January 20, 2014 - 07:50

    "Karen McCarthy pointed out that there really isn’t as much call for this sort of thing"... Well, put net metering in place and let's see who comes up with what. If just 2% more power in the province was generated by the consumers, the rolling blackouts could have been mostly avoided. What was the cost of those power outages to people, businesses, our economy? This could be avoided, but if you are dragging your feet putting in measures that would make self generation feasible, the problems will continue to get worse.

  • S
    January 20, 2014 - 07:02

    This just goes to show how technology is changing for the better and it will continue to change. This is a great concept. But, after all of the money going into Muskrat Falls right now, our government is not going to want to admit that they may be wrong with their investments and these improvements in technology may decrease the need for power from Muskrat Falls in the future. I predict there will be a lot of resistance from our government in supporting projects like this because it will make them look bad for their MF decision. It's a shame that we will be stuck with the Muskrat Falls bill for so long when all that money could have been used in other needed areas instead of a project that will likely be outdated technology relatively soon.

  • Linda Oldford
    January 20, 2014 - 06:52

    Very interesting article.

  • Roena Marshall
    January 20, 2014 - 06:47

    I liked this article. Fortunate people that can spend their money well. I would love to live off the grid BUT is there enough SUN in NL.

    • Jack Parsons
      January 21, 2014 - 06:36

      Ronea if properly planned you can get a massive amount of energy from the sun in NL. The key is planning