An electrifying situation in Basalt
December 13, 2012
BASALT – Chris Lane has turned his family’s home in Basalt’s Southside neighborhood into a power plant.
The family of four has a house that not only produces more electricity than it consumes, but it also provides about 40 percent of the power needed to operate their all-electric Chevrolet Volt. The Lanes are a model of self-sufficiency, but Chris downplays the significance.
“Any guy can do above-average efficiency,” he said.
Their effort started in 2006 when they bought their home. Lane was the former environmental guru for Aspen Skiing Co. and later in charge of environmental initiatives by Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which is the concessionaire at several national parks. He is now chief executive officer of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. With that background, he was tuned in to efficient building practices. He knew his house was a sieve.
“It was below average, barely meeting code, missing code in some areas,” Lane said. The gas fireplace was “a thermal hole to the outside, essentially.” There was no insulation in the crawl space and insufficient insulation in the attic and the walls. It had two oversized water heaters, two oversized air conditioners and two oversized forced-air heaters. Various seams weren’t sealed properly, so the house was drafty.
There were nearly 100 inefficient incandescent lamps and lights in use.
In short, their house was plagued by the numerous little things that derail the efficiency of most homes in the U.S.
“People live with this stuff all the time,” Lane said. “An average person probably wouldn’t care about this.”
For him, reducing his family’s carbon footprint was enough motivation to spend time, money and effort to boost the efficiency of the house. But if that isn’t enough motivation for some people to pursue house efficiency, he said, do it for the return on investment.
“I can’t deny I have a ‘cheap gene.’ I love saving money,” Lane said.
He had to spend money to save money. First, he got a professional energy audit to determine where heat was escaping from his home in winters and where warm air was penetrating in summers.
In addition, a blower-door test revealed that 50 percent of the home’s indoor air was exchanging with outdoor air under ambient pressure. About 35 percent exchange is ideal, Lane said. His dream is getting below 20 percent.
Lane said he probably tackled about 50 percent of the efficiency upgrades himself. For example, he converted a significant portion of his lighting to super high-efficiency LED bulbs and the rest to compact fluorescent bulbs, which aren’t as efficient as LEDs but still provide an upgrade. About 80 percent of the LEDs are instant-on lights that produce little heat and contain no mercury or toxins, he said.
“We will be dead by the time that light bulb wears out,” he said.
Water heaters were wrapped in heat blankets. Every pipe was insulated.
The insulation was improved. Significantly better insulating blinds were added at the windows.
His enlistment of outside experts included Charlie Eckert, of Aspen Thermal, who found the areas around window frames and in corners where cold air was getting in and sealed the voids.
The Lanes are also big on conservation. So big, in fact, that they have a reputation for urging visitors to keep their jackets on inside during winter. Lane said the highest they set the thermostat on their forced-air heating system is 68 degrees – and for only a few hours per day. It often cools into the low 50s at night. Lane and his wife, Diana, prefer to pile on the blankets.
Along with efficiency and conservation, the Lanes invested in alternative energy. They installed a 3.2-kilowatt photovoltaic system on their home. It was designed to offset about 80 percent of their house’s electricity needs, but because of their conservation and efficiency upgrades, it generates more than 130 percent of their annual consumption.
In 2011, the Lanes had an electric bill for $31 in January and $23 in February. They were putting power back into the Holy Cross Energy grid all other months, according to Lane, and receiving an annual paycheck from the utility for that extra generation.
The house generates between 4,500 and 5,000 kilowatt-hours per year, depending on cloud cover. It consumes about 3,500 kilowatt-hours per year.
There’s a saying in the conservation community that you have to take care of your vegetables before you can have dessert. In other words, you’ve got to take the basic steps of boosting efficiency and improving conservation before you spend money on the fun stuff. The Lanes didn’t get cheated when they ordered dessert. They purchased a sleek, silver, all-electric Chevy Volt – with gas generator backup – in mid-October.
“I was peer-pressured into it by my neighbor,” Lane said.
He plugs the car in using a normal outlet in his garage. The charge is enough so that it can cover 50 miles without using the gas engine when driving with care.
“If you drive it like a madman, it’s (good for) 35 miles,” he said.
He commutes frequently during week days to ACES’ headquarters at Hallam Lake, roughly 40 miles round-trip from his home, so the Volt’s perfect for the journey. Because his house is producing extra electricity, charging the vehicle costs almost nothing.
The gas generator occasionally turns on for a few minutes to help heat up the car on days when it’s 30 degrees or lower. Otherwise, he burns no gas. In the first month, he had driven 1,446 miles and used only 1.7 gallons from warm-up mode.
If gas doubles in price, he’ll be smiling. And the former Toyota Prius driver now ribs friends who drive the gas-electric hybrid, saying, “You’re driving a Prius – that dinosaur?”
The efficiency of his home and the production from his solar-photovoltaic system mean he can take care of 30 to 40 percent of the annual charge he needs for his car before he starts consuming energy from the grid.
Lane said the steps his family took to be energy efficient didn’t break the bank.
Sealing the house and insulating pipes and water heaters cost $1,070, but a $560 rebate from SourceGas knocked the net price down to $510.
Insulating the crawl space and attic cost another $1,070, but again, he was able to get a $560 rebate from SourceGas for another net expense of $510.
“It’s a complete coincidence that the numbers are the same,” Lane said.
The lighting cost $6 per bulb for 60 bulbs for compact fluorescents and $30 each for 15 LED bulbs, for a total of $810.
The Lanes invested $16,400 in their solar-photovoltaic system. Rebates from Holy Cross Energy, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, the Governor’s Energy Office and a federal investment tax credit reduced the system’s net cost to $4,300. Lane figures the savings in electricity bills, coupled with the amount Holy Cross pays him for energy returned to the grid, means the return on investment for the system will be 71⁄2 years.
His natural-gas bill dropped from $1,210 per year to $920 per year thanks to the insulation and sealing of the house. The savings of $290 annually means the cost of insulation and sealing will be covered in 31⁄2 years.
The Volt cost the Lanes $38,404 including all fees, taxes and other expenses. They received a $7,500 federal tax credit plus a $5,896 state alternative-fuel-vehicle tax credit, knocking the net cost of the vehicle to $25,008.
By putting the two tax-credit payments and $10,000 from the sale of the Prius into a savings account, for a total of $23,396, the Lanes won’t make an out-of-pocket payment on the Volt for 44 months. Over that same time, they will save an additional $12,318 in gas costs – relative to a 20-mpg vehicle driving 16,000 miles per year.
If the Lanes drive fewer than 50 miles per day, they will never use gas again. The 10-kilowatt-hour charge per night for the Volt costs them next to nothing because their solar panels generate the extra electricity. One night’s charge costs less than $1 to drive 45 miles, Lane said.
The Volt slows itself down with regenerative braking, so it rarely uses its standard brakes. Its combustion engine rarely operates, so maintenance costs are essentially zero, saving the family around $2,000 over 44 months, according to Lane.
If the Lanes decide to sell the car after four years and it sells for the Kelly Blue Book value of $18,000, Lane figures they will actually make a profit off their car.
Being green doesn’t mean being broke.