Solar-Plus-Storage at its Best: Meet Sierra Crest, the First Net-Zero Energy Community in California

by Andrew Meyer
December 23, 2015

50 miles east of Los Angeles In Fontana, California, history is being made.

Meritage Homes has launched the first ever net-zero community in the state. Kevin Kimball, Meritage division president, is committed to the construction of 20 net-zero energy homes in one development at 4665 Condor Ave., Fontana California. Because they’re taking the leap, Kimball claims they’ll have the very first net-zero energy community California’s seen. Time to break out the champagne.

What is a Net-Zero Home?

If you don’t already know what a net-zero home is, get ready for some serious house envy. A net-zero, or net-positive, home is one that generates as much, if not more, energy than it uses. And it’s pretty awesome. All off-grid homes are net-zero, but the term encompasses more than just households who have cut ties with the power companies. Zero net energy homes also refer to households who have a net energy consumption of zero over the course of a year. Some homes are still connected to the grid for the times they need more electricity than their panels can produce, but they make up for it later during the days that they require much less.

Net-zero homes start with a great, energy-efficient design (like a passive solar construction) and use a combination of electricity generating technologies like solar panels, along with efficient appliances and heating/cooling systems to reach the ultimate goal of using less energy than they generate. Let’s break this down.

Zero-energy homes are usually built that way from the ground up, starting with the initial design. Energy efficient housing designs, like the passive solar design model, use the climate and surroundings of a home to make sure that they use energy naturally, especially when it comes to lighting and heating from the sun. This means that windows and skylights are not just there for the view -- they serve the purpose of lighting up the house well during the day, as well as letting in heat during cooler seasons. Passive designs often use awnings and shades to keep things cool in the summer, and reduce the energy needed for air conditioning or other cooling systems.

Once the housing structure is designed, what’s put inside matters a lot. Construction components light high thermal performance windows and insulation are a must, and many net-zero homes use high-efficiency heat and water pumps, in addition to Energy Star appliances. Every detail of a net-zero home is important, but there’s two major components that a net-zero home can’t do without: a way to generate energy, and a place to store it.

Most net-zero homes use rooftop solar as their way to generate electricity for the household. Solar panels convert energy from the sun into electricity that can be used anywhere in the house, from the light switches to the dishwasher to the electricity outlets. But without a way to store the energy generated by solar panels, like a home battery, electricity is only available when the sun is in the sky. But aren’t net-zero homes built so they don’t need very much electricity during the day? Exactly. That’s what makes home batteries so important. With a home battery, you can store the excess energy generated by solar panels during the day, so it’s available for you in the evening after the sun goes down. This eliminates the need to count on the grid for electricity at night, when grid energy is at its most expensive. Home batteries are like bank--your solar panels are cranking out electricity all day, but they need somewhere to deposit the goods. Home batteries keep your energy safe until you want to spend it. Where you spend it? That’s totally up to you. But if you’re in a net-zero home, you’re probably spending less, without sacrificing anything. Just ask Meritage Homes, the company behind the first zero net energy community in Fontana, California.

Living in Sierra Crest

Kevin Kimball and Meritage Homes are the face of the project, but they’re not doing it alone. BIRAenergy, Itron, and Southern California Edison are teaming up to build homes that are energy efficient at their core. The energy-saving amenities in this community are not being offered as options. They’re requirements.

Each home, ranging from around 2,000 to 3,000 square feet, will include solar panels, heat pump water heaters, efficient heating and cooling systems, LED lights and integrated air ventilation units. On top of this, Meritage Homes are fitting each unit with spray-foam insulation, highly-rated vinyl windows, Energy Star appliances, and technology that will help each member of the house monitor and control their energy use. Who will those household member be? Meritage hopes to reach more than just affluent homebuyers.

By starting home prices at the affordable rate of $370,000, Meritage wants to reach average homebuyers, bringing net-zero living into the mainstream. As soon as buyers move in, savings will hit them right away, square in the utility bill. The homes will likely use about 60 percent of the energy used by average California homes, and the energy they use, they’ll be generating themselves.

Well, mostly. The initial plan was for Sierra Crest homes to be connected to the electrical grid so they could use grid electricity at night when their solar panels cooled off. Then, SunEdison stepped in.

Home Batteries Move Homes to the Next Level

If people were already excited about the net-zero homes of Sierra Crest, SunEdison sent them through the roof when they announced that they would be supplying advanced battery systems for the community. Like we explained already, solar electricity is awesome, but without home batteries, most of it just sinks back into the grid, making households dependent on grid electricity in the evenings, when they need it the most. Tim Derrick, SunEdison’s general manager of Advanced Solutions, said it best:

“With this project, we’re pioneering solutions that will help Californians prepare for the future of the grid, where homes and businesses will be generating their own electricity on a much greater scale than we’re seeing today. By installing SunEdison’s advanced battery systems on these net-zero energy homes, we’re able to store solar-generated electricity and better manage the interactions of that electricity with the grid.”

Tim Derrick, General Manager of Advanced Solutions, SunEdison

With home batteries, Sierra Crest will be a model of energy efficiency and cost effectiveness, but they’ll also be able to keep the lights on, even when the grid cuts out. It’s pretty much a straight utopia, and it won’t be long before more communities follow suit.

The First, but Not the Last

Sierra Crest is getting a lot of great press for being the first net-zero energy community in California, but it’s not going to be the last. Not by a long shot. In fact, California is requiring all new homes to be built to Zero Net Energy standards by 2020. As Meritage Homes and its partners get Sierra Crest up and running, other housing developers will be looking at the community as a model for future housing development design. The project team will be keeping a close eye on the pilot program, and how feasible it is to scale the project across the state.

“There are several [net-zero energy} home throughout California, but none clustered at on community,” says CR Herro, the vice president of environmental affairs at Meritage homes. “This community not only allows the value of operation cost reduction to homeowners, but provides much needed data to utilities about [kilowatt] production and demand at each home, and cumulatively at the transformer level to provide needed data to design service for community level Zero Energy as California building code progresses toward this standard.” Net-zero living as a standard? We love the sound of that. And we’re not the only ones. Net-zero homes are about to go mainstream.

Meritage wanted to reach a broader market by presenting homes at affordable prices for California buyers. As the market for net-zero living grows and the price of energy technology like solar panels and home batteries drop, more and more builders will be presenting similar models to buyers.

The future of energy efficiency is here, and if you look towards Fontana, California, you can watch the creation of a real, live example of a truly efficient community. Being smart about design and intentional about energy usage is going to propel our residential communities into a future of clean, free energy from the sun, and seamless, reliable storage through home batteries.

If you’re like us and can’t help but drool over the thought of independence from the electrical grid, hit us up to talk about the process of installing a home battery in your household.

It starts with a free evaluation