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How One Austin Home Produces More Energy Than It Uses

Mengwen Cao for KUT News
Steve Bijansky climbs down from the attic of his "Net Zero" home in Allandale.

From StateImpact Texas:

As the mercury rises in Texas, so does our energy use. Air conditioners will work overtime to keep your house cool. And when that happens, the Texas grid can become stretched thin.

One solution is to build more power plants to meet growing demand. Another is to simply get Texans to use less energy.

"The cheapest and cleanest electricity is the electricity you don't use," says Kate Zerrenner, a Project Manager in the Texas office of the Environmental Defense Fund that focuses on energy efficiency and the energy-water nexus.

To see how far efficiency can go, I visited one of the newest – and smallest – power plants in Austin. Forget smokestacks and huge transmission lines: this "power plant" is actually a modest three-bedroom house in the Allandale neighborhood, right off Burnet Road. It's classified as a "Net Zero" home, meaning it produces as much energy as it uses. Or in this case, it actually produces more energy than it needs.

Steve and Devon Bijansky bought this home a few years ago, and since it had had a fire, they needed to start from scratch. They decided to go as green as possible.

"Any opportunity that we had to be greener, more water-wise, more energy efficient?" says Devon Bijansky, "We didn't see any reason not to."

The first thing you notice about the Bijansky's home is that it's very quiet, and even on a hot July day, it's quite cool, too. Instead of just a loud, power-hungry AC unit, the house uses a geothermal system to help cool the air and heat the water it, consisting of three wells drilled three hundred feet underground. "The way it works is, you circulate water up and down those wells, and it cools just enough that it absorbs the heat from your heat pump," says Ray Tonjes, the builder of the home.

Tonjes and the Bijanskys guide me through the home, showing off efficient features like solar tubes, used instead of skylights to allow natural light in but to keep heat out. Tonjes says the most bang for your buck when it comes to efficiency is good design: in Texas, that means placing the house to keep direct exposure of windows to the afternoon sun at a minimum, so they oriented the house to minimize western exposure.

And they put in a cool little trick at every sink that saves lots of water.

"Ray installed this little doorbell button," Steve Bijansky says. "What this doorbell button does, it circulates the hot water to all the sinks in the house. So we press the button, wait about thirty seconds, and then the hot water is ready at the faucets."

Then the tour goes in a direction I didn't anticipate: up. "There's good stuff in the attic," Tonjes says, so up we go.

If your attic is anything like mine, it's a scary place, reminiscent of Hades. But the Bijansky's attic is a functional, temperate space, not much warmer than their living room. That's because the insulation isn't on the floor of the attic, it's up on the underside of the roof. A white, bubbly foam coats it, helping to create a radiant barrier that keeps out the heat of the sun, while also leaving open floor space for storage. "It's this foam that really keeps the house so cool," Steve Bijansky says.

All of these elements – insulation, orientation, geothermal, a radiant barrier and many more – combine to help the Bijanskys use very little power. But that still doesn't make their house a power source. That's where several solar panels on their roof come in.

"On the roof we have about 6.3 kilowatts of solar," Devon Bijansky says. "And they've been there almost three years."

We walk over to the Bijansky's electric meter to see what kind of impact they've had.

"We've netted 32 kilowatt hours back into the grid. So effectively, as of today, we're net zero and then some," she says.

This is but one of several net zero homes in Texas. Of course, for most of us, building a new home like this isn't feasible. But there are some small steps everyday homeowners can take to reduce inefficiency, the builder Tonjes says.

"One of the things you try and do as low-hanging fruit, if you will, especially for older houses, is to shade your windows. Either with landscaping or certain films that you can put on your windows so they don't absorb as much solar gain," he says.

You can also caulk around your older windows and seal around your doors. Tonjes says it's easy to add insulation to your attic. Or get your air conditioning ducts sealed.

These kinds of upgrades could become much more important because of new regulations announced this summer. The Obama administration has tasked each state with reducing their carbon emissions, the leading cause of global climate change.

Texas will have a way to go, and while less use of coal power and more use of natural gas and renewable energy will likely be part of the answer, so is using less power through efficiency, according to Zerrenner of the Environmental Defense Fund. She anticipates it won't be the job-killing regulation some Republicans have said it could be.

Texas is spending millions on Greg Abbott's lawsuits against EPA regulations, with a record that's collecting quite a few losses. When Texas loses those cases, the state has to scramble to comply with the rules. "It's money that we're spending on suing, and then it's time we're wasting on not figuring out how to comply, when we're going to have to comply anyways." she says. If Texas were to accept the new regulations and utilize state-driven, innovative approaches to regulation, it wouldn't take much, Zerrenner says. "It's just sort of a kick in the pants rather than something completely out of the blue. Again, all we need to do is amplify these current trends, we've already been on this trajectory," she says.

One organization trying to speed up that trajectory is SPEER, the South Central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource, which works with utilities to design and promote energy efficiency programs.

"By ramping up our energy efficiency efforts in the region, we could meet the requirements that have been laid out in a very cost-effective way," says Doug Lewin, Executive Director of SPEER. Lewin says that power saved through energy efficiency is the cheapest source of power available, cheaper than natural gas.

Lewin says most of us are already becoming more energy efficient, even if we're not consciously trying to. Appliances use less power than they used to. And when you go to buy a replacement for your burned-out lightbulb, there's a good chance you'll go for an LED bulb. Especially as they get cheaper. "To be truly energy efficient, you should not have to sacrifice on quality. You're getting the same quality, but using less energy to get it," Lewin says.

Building energy codes also play a part in the increasing amount of efficiency in Texas. The 2009 International Residential Code adopted by Texas means that a home built to that code currently is more than 50 percent more efficient than a home built twenty years ago, according to Lewin. "That's a real feather in our cap," Lewin says. And since Texas is a home rule state, Lewin says, while cities can't go below the statewide code, they can go above it, which cities like Houston and Austin (along with 49 others in the Lone Star State) have done.

There's also rebate and incentive programs from electric utilities in Texas, but they could do more. "Those rebate programs in Texas, however, relative to other states, are still very, very small," Lewin says. "If we increase those programs, we could accelerate the trend of [energy efficiency] much faster." Texas ranks the lowest in the country among states that have energy efficiency resource standards. "We have a lot of room for growth," Zerrenner of EDF says.

recent study for the Texas grid said energy efficiency, combined with voluntary power reduction programs known as demand response, could reduce the amount of energy needed for the state during our hot summer afternoons by half. That would mean not having to build half a dozen new power plants.

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