Sustainability is Not an Upgrade

solar-panels-1By Gerry Braun and Mark Braly

The City of Davis and UC Davis have climate action plans that call for aggressive carbon footprint reductions. Both have had recent opportunities to put their plans into action. UCD negotiated an agreement with a private land developer to create West Village, a new residential development on land west of its main campus. A condition of the development agreement was that all the energy used by West Village homes and would be supplied by on-site renewable energy systems.

UCD’s additional requirements were that net zero energy be achieved at no additional cost to West Village residents and no loss of profitability to the developer. Thanks to detailed technical and financial analysis, combined with both energy conserving design features recommended by Davis Energy Group and solar electricity infrastructure skillfully provided by SunPower Corp., these conditions were met.

More recently, the City of Davis negotiated a development agreement with The New Home Company to create a new housing development in Davis called The Cannery. Project plans called for consideration energy conscious design features along the lines of those adopted for West Village. However, no energy or climate action goals were set.

During negotiation of The Cannery development agreement, representatives of the Valley Climate Action Center (VCAC) met with negotiators for both sides and advocated for a net zero goal for The Cannery following the West Village example. It was clear at the time that such a goal would be unachievable unless certain essential features, e.g. properly sized rooftop solar arrays, would standard for all buildings.

No energy related goals were set, but New Home did decide to include solar arrays (undersized relative to design energy usage) on all Cannery single family homes, explaining that larger solar arrays and net zero energy packages would be offered as upgrades.

Net zero energy goals were achieved at West Village under less favorable conditions, e.g. at a time when rooftop solar equipment and installation costs were significantly higher than they are today and will be during the remainder of The Cannery build-out. So, the VCAC board arranged a follow up meeting with City and New Home representatives last week to re-open discussion of climate action goals.

VCAC representatives pointed out that on its current trajectory, The Cannery development will add significantly to the City’s carbon footprint unless a large percentage of initial homebuyers opt for necessary upgrades. They further pointed out that, while net zero energy can be cost-effectively achieved during initial construction, later retrofits aiming for net zero will practically and economically unrewarding. Incremental owner initiated solar array upgrades will be as much as two or three times more costly on a unit energy basis than they would be as part of the new construction process.

After considering New Home’ description of their sales process for The Cannery, the VCAC board voted to recommend that The New Homes Partnership and the City of Davis collaborate to establish a net zero goal for The Cannery and to include standard features in Cannery homes that lead to its achievement. VCAC believes that both parties can advance their reputations for innovation and environmental stewardship by adopting a net zero goal for The Cannery.

Perhaps more importantly, in taking action, both parties can correct their original message to the public and the world. In a home construction and sales context, thicker carpets and other amenities are rightly labeled and offered as profitable upgrades. In a moral and environmental stewardship dimension, sustainability is not an upgrade. It is basic to bringing a potentially runaway global climate back into balance.

Gerry Braun is a utility and solar energy industry veteran who leads the Integrated Resources Network, a community of pragmatic innovators working for a smart and clean energy future.  Mark Braly is President of the Valley Climate Action Center, a non-profit corporation in partnership with the City of Davis.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Barack Palin

    UCD’s additional requirements were that net zero energy be achieved at no additional cost to West Village residents and no loss of profitability to the developer.

    So who paid for it?  It isn’t free.

    1. CalAg

      West Village was heavily subsidized with public sector money to get to net zero.

      The joke is that it didn’t work. Because the sustainable energy was perceived as free and nonpolluting by the residents, they consumed more than the net zero models projected. As a consequence the project fell short of its net zero goal. Basic economics in action!

      UCD tried some strategies to correct the shortfall, but I don’t know the current status of these efforts. The project was always viewed as kind of a real world laboratory experiment, so these kinds of problems were probably inevitable.

      The rumor is that the economic burden of the sustainability requirements have made the single family residential component unbuildable, probably explaining why the project seems to have stalled out.

      1. Barack Palin

        West Village was heavily subsidized with public sector money to get to net zero.

        So I and other taxpayers paid for the green energy, not the residents or the developer.  How sweet!  I wish I could install solar on my house and have the public sector pay for all of it.  Funny how this was left out of the article.

        Thanks for the info CalAg.

        For Hpierce, let me save you the trouble.  Yes I know there are Federal and State (if the state is still participating) grants to help pay for homeowner solar.  But the homeowner still has to pay a lot to own their own solar.

  2. Davis Progressive

    i think this is a hugely important piece because the council failed on cannery.  it didn’t bring us what we needed.  it failed to demand a zero net energy and sustainable project.  it failed to bring us affordable housing.  can someone tell me what it succeeded on?

  3. Frankly

    Economic sustainability needs to come before what is really an ideological need for environmental sustainability (because nobody really even knows that that is).

    A family in debt up to their eyeballs without additional income to reverse their deficit does not go purchase solar panels.

    Get your priorities straight folks.

    1. Anon

      You make a very valid point.  UCD had sufficient funding (some of it probably grant money – correct me if that is wrong), resources (don’t they have their own bio-digester for food waste?) and expertise to make their project net zero energy.  But that may not translate in practical terms to the average residential housing development.  For instance, if it would cost the homeowner upfront an extra $20,000 to add solar energy to the home, that could be a deal breaker.  This would be especially true in a housing development with monthly CFD and HOA payments, on top of monthly mortgage payments.

  4. CalAg

    This article seems to be about VCAC trying to refight the last battle.

    In light of the other article in the Vanguard today, I wonder if they will come forward and demand that Trackside be net zero? What was their position on the Embassy Suites project? Have they taken a position regarding net zero on Nishi or MRIC?

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