Power to the people

This house will draw no power from the electricity grid

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on January 20, 2014
Artist’s rendition of a net zero home contractor Jack Parsons is building in Flatrock for his daughter. — Submitted image

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.

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.”