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Solving for Energy and Water: Progress from Coast to Coast

Posted by Sara Gutterman

Apr 25, 2019 2:11:25 PM

From California to New York, codes, mandates, programs, and projects are ushering in a new era of sustainability, tackling the most critical issues related to the built environment: energy and water. 

With each incremental code, policy, incentive, and program, California continues to blaze a trail with regard to sustainable living.  From banning single-use plastics to increasing electric vehicle requirements to implementing strict regulations designed to enhance the performance of the built environment, California is making headway in its enduring quest for a more sustainable future, despite facing opposition from Washington at every turn.

As one shining example of the State’s forward progress, the California Energy Commission (CEC) voted unanimously last year to require solar panels on new homes, condos, and apartment buildings that are 3 stories or less (with some exemptions) beginning January 1, 2020.

The CEC expects that this requirement will substantially decrease the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (asserting that it is the equivalent to taking 115,000 fossil fuel vehicles off the road.)  And while it is expected to raise monthly mortgages by approximately $40 per month for the average homeowner, the estimated savings on monthly utility bills is $80 (translating into $15,000-$20,000 over the course of a typical 30-year mortgage.) 

Green Builder Media guest columnist Pierre Delforge writes that California’s updated 2020 code “will combine rooftop solar panels with enough energy efficiency measures like insulation and better windows that all new single-family homes and low-rise apartments will use net-zero electricity. This means that their solar array should offset all electricity use for cooling, plug-in equipment, and lighting on an annual basis.”

On the other coast, New York City just made national headlines by passing sweeping legislation that requires large and medium-sized buildings to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050, accelerating the adoption of renewable energy and contributing to the slashing of the City’s emissions by 4 million tons (the equivalent of taking 800,000 cars off the road.)

Builders like Meritage Homes are proactively getting ahead of the impending requirements by developing communities like CitySquare, California’s first net-zero townhome community located in the heart of Irvine.

bldg44x3CitySquare blends state-of-the-art energy efficiency technologies like heat pump dryers and water heaters with high-performance building envelope solutions to reduce energy demand. 

To augment these energy efficiency measures, Meritage partnered with Southern California Edison to create a new utility policy that allows for the aggregation of energy from the community’s solar array, allowing the community to distribute or offset that aggregated power for each unit to achieve a net zero result (so that the community’s total power production is considered rather than production from each unit.) 

“We had some challenges with respect to sizing and orientation for the solar system,” says CR Herro, VP Innovation for Meritage Homes.  “Because the roof sizes were relatively small and the orientation wasn’t perfect, we had to get creative.  We used super high efficiency panels from SunPower that are designed to optimize each square foot, and we oriented the panels more towards the west than the south to match energy production with concurrent demand (given when power is generally used in homes.) And, we couldn’t have achieved net zero if Southern California Edison didn’t come to the table with a creative approach and the willingness to develop innovative policy solutions.”

CitySquare’s story doesn’t end with energy.  Meritage addressed a wide variety of modern living challenges, including water conservation (with water efficient appliances and plumbing fixtures, drought tolerant landscape, and weather sensing irrigation systems) and indoor air quality (the community is certified to EPA Indoor airPlus and uses non-toxic materials, fresh air exchange, and a full suite of IAQ tools and high efficiency filtration systems to ensure healthy air quality.)

Meritage is smart to get ahead of what promises to be a landslide of enhanced water and air quality requirements.  In fact, the cascade has already commenced: at the same time it passed the solar mandate, California also approved SB606, requiring urban retail water suppliers to develop stringent water management plans, as well as AB1668, which establishes a gallons-per-capita daily goal for indoor water use for residential, commercial, industrial, institutional and agricultural water use.

Given that water is the arguably the most pressing issue of our time, expect to see a tsunami of related codes, policies, and mandates coming to a municipality near you—soon. 

Water is certainly the number one limiting factor to growth in the building sector.  As seasoned builder and former Executive Director of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association Kim Shanahan says, “If there is no water, there are no building permits.  Plain and simple.”

The national demand for water is growing rapidly, especially in water parched areas like the Southwest and West. By 2030, experts predict over 100% growth in states like Nevada and Arizona, 60% in Texas, and upwards of 30% in California and Colorado, which doesn’t bode well for our already thinly-stretched stressed water resource. 

Many of these parched states are already exploring enhanced water regulations and increased water costs, keeping a keen eye on Santa Fe, which has the nation’s most stringent water policies and highest water fees, and now boasts the lowest daily per capita water usage in the country at 87 gallons per day (as a point of reference, Las Vegas, another low per capita water use municipality, is at around 200 gallons per day.) 

Look for massive shifts in water policy in municipalities across the country that mandate net zero water homes, including features such as:

  • Water conserving/low flow plumbing fixtures and appliances (including innovative technologies like the “infinity shower” that recycles water in a closed-loop system)
  • Leak detection and water monitoring systems that learn the water footprint of a home and shut off water when leaks are detected
  • Greywater systems for interior non-potable use as well as exterior landscaping
  • Smart irrigation systems that respond to weather conditions
  • Rain/roof water capture with holding tanks and filtration systems so that water can be reused inside the home as potable water
  • Innovative technologies like atmospheric generators (that pull water out of the air) for fresh water supply to homes and communities

Cities throughout the nation are starting to mandate water offset programs, in which homes and buildings are required to show zero-net demand on aggregate water supply in order to receive a permit.

The incentive for the dramatic policy change?  A devastating reality. 

“In the coming decades, coastal cities like New York will be hit hard with rising sea levels, leading to severe and frequent flooding,” asserts New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.  “Extreme weather all over the planet will be the norm, including high heat, hurricanes, and storm surges. This will threaten our homes, our infrastructure, and our very way of life. The death toll will be unfathomable.  We are in a race against the clock to preserve the world for our children and our grandchildren.”

Since, at least for the time being, we can’t wait for the federal government to implement national policy, it’s up to states, cities, and communities to do the hard work.  Let’s hope that municipalities from coast to coast follow the precedent that New York City and California have set.  Given that the latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report asserted that we only have 12 years left to solve for climate change, it certainly won’t be a minute too soon.

Want to read more?  Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.  For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit Green Builder Media at www.greenbuildermedia.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter for regular updates and breaking news.

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