Builders Offer Green Tract Homes with Nearly Zero Utility Bills

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Builders offer green tract homes with nearly zero utility bills
By Wendy Koch, USA TODAY

To stand out in a still-sluggish housing market, major builders are starting to sell affordable tract homes that come with solar panels and nearly zero utility bills.

On Earth Day Friday, Meritage Homes will begin offering a “net-zero” home that’s designed to produce as much energy as it uses annually. Such homes, starting at $140,000 in Tucson and $160,000 in Las Vegas, will be available in parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and central Texas, where a nine-panel rooftop solar array is already a standard feature. For a $10,000 upgrade, consumers can get 24 more solar panels that could reduce utility bills to zero.

“It’s a new way of building homes,” says C.R. Herro, vice president of environmental affairs for Arizona-based Meritage, the nation’s ninth-largest builder.

“This is the first major-size builder to do this,” says David Johnston, author of Toward a Zero Energy Home. He says net-zero building has become common in Canada, but until now relatively few affordable-housing units have achieved such efficiency.

Still, in an economy with $4-a-gallon gasoline, Meritage’s effort reflects an industry wide push to build homes that cost less to operate.

Last month, Los Angeles-based KB Home announced that it will include as a standard feature in 10 Southern California communities a small, six-panel rooftop solar array capable of cutting energy costs by about 30% in an 1,800- to 2,000-square-foot home.

“Just about all the larger builders are focusing on energy efficiency,” says Kevin Morrow of the National Association of Home Builders.

“Shiny granite can only go so far” to lure buyers from low-price foreclosures, says Nate Kredich of the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council. Kredich says he applauds Meritage for “really pushing the envelope” on sustainability.

Bruce Ploeser’s family of six plans to move next week into Meritage’s first net-zero house, in the Verrado community in Buckeye, Ariz.

“It’s beautiful,” says Ploeser of the five-bedroom, 3,400-square-foot, $326,000 home.

He likes watching its meter, which often shows that the 25 photovoltaic panels are sending a surplus of energy back to the grid.

“I’m just amazed,” he says, “that it’s running backward.”

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