Last week, UC Davis released a report tracking the West Village progress toward zero net energy. The report put the good face on it, stating that it “continues to work toward its goal of producing 100 percent of the energy it uses.”
The findings are not all that encouraging, however. The analysis from September 2013 to August 2014 found that the community “is 82 percent of its way toward reaching zero net energy, or ZNE.” Except for one problem – 82 percent is down from the previous finding of 87 percent, the report notes later on.
The reality is, “The primary difference between then and the new analysis is that formerly vacant retail and office space is now occupied.”
“The neighborhood is close to where we want it to be, but we still are not at the finish line,” said Sid England, Assistant Vice Chancellor of the UC Davis Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability. “I think we’re on track to get to 100 percent in the long-term. Along the way, we’ve learned some valuable lessons that we hope can inform other developments in California and across the country.”
The report notes: “Zero net energy is achieved when the community generates 100 percent of the energy it uses over the course of a full year. Neighborhoods and buildings are increasingly being designed and promoted as zero net energy, but whether they meet that goal can only be verified with real residents and businesses in place.
“West Village houses nearly 2,000 residents, mostly UC Davis students, as well as several UC Davis energy and transportation research centers and the Honda Smart Home. It serves as a living laboratory that explores how zero net energy design works in practice.
“Since the complex first opened in 2011, additional apartments have been built, office and retail spaces have filled, tenant energy behavior has been studied, and energy use has fluctuated.”
The problem, as a Sacramento Bee article has pointed out: “Developer and owner Carmel Partners said the 2,000 student residents had no incentive to conserve since utilities are included in the monthly rent, which ranges from $880 to $1,850.”
“When residents are not responsible for paying, they are less likely to be conscious about how much they are using,” Stephanie Martling, Vice President of Asset Management for the San Francisco-based Carmel Partners, told the Bee.
If that’s the problem it might be a relatively easy fix. The residents may soon be required to pay for electricity based on usage. They also started a conservation education effort.
“Sometimes we notice a particular unit might be 10 times higher than its neighbor,” Ms. Martling told the Bee. “Often times, these residents don’t even know they are using as much electricity because this is their first apartment.”
But will that be enough? After all, small units being energy inefficient might not yield enough cost to incentivize students to cut back on energy usage.
Gerry Braun, a Davis-based energy consultant, seems concerned that the data “undercuts those of us who say this is economically feasible.”
“The message from UC Davis is, ‘This is really tough; we’re working on it.’ You can’t use West Village as a successful demonstration to motivate others,” he told the Bee
The problem is worse than one might think. If UC Davis cannot get to ZNE, how are we going to expect private development to get there?
For instance, in the sustainability plan for Nishi, they trumpet their Sustainability Implementation Plan: “Design and construct high-performance buildings, public lighting, and onsite renewable energy systems that work towards achieving zero net energy (ZNE).”
As such they wish to “[s]erve as a model for low-carbon, climate-resilient development that also enhances the fiscal and equitable sustainability of the broader community.” And, “Strive for carbon neutral transportation through the use of innovative designs, infrastructure, technologies, and programs.”
But this is not a ZNE project. And if West Village can’t get there, it will be hard for any private development to get there.
—David M. Greenwald reporting