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Power House

Building energy-efficiency solutions under one roof

Some of the best plans are hatched on napkins over coffee and completed with a handshake. That’s how James McKee, director of business development for Taylor Electric Cooperative, and Aaron Waldrop, developer of Pack Saddle Prairie subdivision, agreed to help build Abilene’s most energy-efficient home. Taylor EC, which provides electricity for portions of Abilene, including Waldrop’s subdivision, serves nine counties in the Abilene area.

Both men wanted to test-drive some of the latest energy technology that their customers were asking about: Can you save money with solar panels? Are double-paned windows worth the extra cost? Should I save rainwater?

They contacted Mike Moyer, owner of Sela Builders, about constructing a unique house for Abilene. “When the developer approached me, it took only a couple of seconds to decide I wanted to do it,” Moyer said. The idea was to build a house that would produce as much of its own electricity as possible and consume energy as efficiently as possible. They call it a “near-net-zero energy” home.

McKee and two other Taylor Electric Cooperative employees traveled with Moyer and Waldrop to meet William Peck, owner of William Peck & Assoc., Inc., Architects in Lewisville, northwest of Dallas. Having designed several energy-stingy homes in the Metroplex, Peck came up with a plan for a home in Abilene. Taylor Electric contributed funds for top-of-the line, energy-saving equipment such as solar panels, Energy Star appliances, a heat-pump water tank, a standing-seam galvanized steel roof with light- and heat-reflecting properties, extensive foam insulation in the exterior walls and a handsome electric fireplace that burns wood pellets made from discarded sawdust. The fireplace is capable of heating 1,000 square feet or more of the home without drafts.

The underside of the roof and the attic walls are insulated with so much foam that there is little deviation between the temperature-controlled house and the attic, which resembles a foam grotto. The cooperative also paid for rain gutters and a 1,200-gallon water storage tank that helps keep the yard green.

The carefully constructed 2,507-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bath home was completed in time for Abilene’s spring Parade of Homes. Brad Robinson, Taylor Electric’s meter expert, said that many of the people visiting the home wanted to learn more about the nuts and bolts of energy savings.

The typical energy usage for a home this size is 16,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) a year. But with an estimated solar output of 7,200 kWh a year plus 2,800 kWh in savings from energy-efficient appliances and other upgrades, the home’s total annual energy usage is projected at 6,000 kWh. That means the estimated electric bill is $690 a year, less than $60 a month, (based on a rate of 11.5 cents per kWh and not including the monthly service fee)—a savings of $1,150 per year or nearly $100 a month over a typical home.

McKee said they learned that many of the best conservation practices were out of the past—deep overhangs to shade windows, the proper north-south home orientation for the climate, and an extra-large, covered back porch with an outdoor kitchen.

The house, which was under contract at press time, is priced at $329,995 and cost approximately $117 a square foot to construct. It is offered at approximately $130 per square foot. Moyer said his traditionally built homes cost $78 to $88 a square foot and sell for about $120 per square foot.

Between mid-February and June 3, the empty house had generated 1,929 kilowatt-hours of power. Every month, Moyer pays Taylor Electric a $30 connection fee, but the home generates more power than it uses. “The home has 20 solar panels and would need 20 more to achieve a net-zero electricity bill,” Moyer said.

At current prices, it would take 15 to 20 years to recoup the investment in energy equipment.

Robinson said the information gained from monitoring the new home’s electricity and water use will be especially useful to him as he does home and building energy audits for members of Taylor Electric Cooperative and answers queries about energy-efficient practices. “There are many questionable claims out there, but we will know exactly what can be accomplished with energy technology in our area,” he said.

Kaye Northcott is editor emeritus of Texas Co-op Power.