California’s SGIP is Bringing Net-Zero Homes into the Mainstream

by Andrew Meyer
February 16, 2016

If you don’t already know what a net-zero home is, get ready for some serious house envy.

Net-Zero homes are growing in popularity in the United States, enough for the Net-Zero Energy Coalition to take stock and get an accurate count from each state. So, where can you find the most net-zero homes in the United States? California. By a long shot. California is home to almost half of all of the net-zero homes in the country, leading the US toward a more energy efficient future. California’s impressive number of net-zero homes has a lot to do with the Self-Generation Incentive Program, or SGIP, a program that is providing huge financial incentives to Californians who who want to install solar energy storage in the form of home batteries. The SGIP is so awesome, in fact, that they might make net-zero living a mainstream idea.

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.

Where to Find Net-Zero Homes

The Net-Zero Energy Coalition just finished their first survey of all zero-energy buildings in North America. The results are pretty interesting. In total, there are almost 6,800 net-zero housing units, including both single-family homes, and also apartments. On top of that, there are 3,339 additional buildings that boast net-zero status. Here’s the current North American breakdown:

California is sprinting ahead of every other state with a total of 1538 net-zero buildings, with Massachusetts far behind with 219. Connecticut is keeping up with Massachusetts with 212, and Alberta is taking the Canadian lead with 206. New Mexico boasts 168 total buildings, and Arizona 114. New York takes a small slice with 85, Oregon 60, with all other states and provinces claiming the remaining 337 (Texas with 16, and Ontario, 15.)

The grand total number of net-zero housing units makes up about 1 percent of all of the new housing built in 2014, but many energy-efficient builders say that the momentum for new net-zero homes is increasing. This is definitely true in California.

California Leads the Way

With all of the focus California has put on energy efficiency and renewables, it makes perfect sense that they would host the largest number of net-zero energy buildings. In fact, California recently announced that it’s working on breaking down market barriers in the net-zero sector, so that all new homes will have net zero capabilities by the year 2020. It’s that sort of goal-oriented ambition that is going to usher net-zero building into the mainstream.

Sacramento and Davis, California, are leading in the total number of net-zero homes already built, but Fontana, California, is boasting that they are building the first ever net-zero energy community. Kevin Kimball and Meritage Homes are the face of Sierra Crest, the country’s premier net-zero energy residential community, 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. This is made possible by home batteries.

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. 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.”

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. They could speed things up by offering amazing energy storage incentives, like the SGIP. (Read more about Sierra Crest Here)

The SGIP gives California a Huge Boost

SGIP stands for Self Generation Incentive Program, a way to motivate consumers to use alternative energy sources to generate and store their own electricity. California’s SGIP is the longest running and most successful programs of its kind in the country. In short, the program pays Californians for using certain renewable energy systems, like turbines, and also pays households with energy storage systems, like home batteries. We’re not talking about a few extra pennies, either. The SGIP pays energy storage users over a dollar per watt. This means that home battery owners in California not only enjoy backup power and blackout protection along with lower (or even non-existent) electricity bills… they also get paid.

Since home batteries are a key component to net-zero building, and California offers such a huge incentive for home battery buyers, it’s no mystery why California is so far ahead in net-zero building initiatives. And California shows no sign at stopping here. With the SGIP now extended for five more years, we’re going to see the net-zero boom continue in California, hopefully until it reaches its goal of 100% of new home building projects in 2020. Then, we can officially welcome net-zero living into the mainstream.