Energy wonks hope to achieve breakthrough at Basalt Vista project

Energy wonks in the Roaring Fork Valley are even more excited about a new Basalt affordable-housing project than the homeowners.

The first phase of Habitat for Humanity’s Basalt Vista project will serve as a laboratory for unparalleled management of household energy use and independence from the electrical grid.

“These will be the model of what we want to do in the future,” said Chris Bilby, a research engineer with Holy Cross Energy.

Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork decided to make the housing project all electric. Along with off-the-charts energy efficiency, each unit will each have a solar photovoltaic system. As a result, they will be “net-zero” — producing as much energy as they consume.

“These will be the model of what we want to do in the future.” — Chris Bilby, HCE research engineer

Once the decision for all-electric, net-zero was made, Holy Cross Energy jumped at a chance to experiment with energy consumption and storage. The energy cooperative is a major supplier of energy in the Roaring Fork Valley and Interstate 70 corridor in Garfield and Eagle counties.

Holy Cross is installing sophisticated energy regulators in the first four units constructed at Basalt Vista. The systems will learn the residents’ energy use habits and adapt accordingly, Bilby said. If the homeowners tend to take showers during the same one-hour window each morning, for example, the system will interact with the water heater to prepare. The system will make multiple decisions throughout day and night to adjust energy consumption of the home.

It will “manipulate consumption in a way no one notices,” Bilby said. “The homeowner won’t know which way the meter is spinning.”

HCE also will install batteries in the four units so that energy produced by the solar photovoltaic systems can be stored and used when it benefits the homeowners the most. On a sunny winter day when the systems produce more energy than the homes consume, the excess energy will be stored in the batteries. When the homeowners return in the evening, energy can be tapped from the batteries rather than drawn from the grid, at a time when prices tend to be highest.

The idea is to take the smart home technology and tie it to battery storage to create a more sophisticated and integrated system. While delayed self-storage systems are common these days, this system will take it to a new level, Bilby said. There are also implications for energy suppliers such as Holy Cross Energy.

“This program hopes to demonstrate that adjusting energy levels by providing solar arrays and battery storage at a home can be more cost-effective than modifying energy production at a centralized power plant,” said a policy paper prepared by Holy Cross.

Pockets of all-electric homes already exist in the Roaring Fork Valley, mostly due to a surge in popularity in the 1980s, Bilby said. There are 160 all-electric homes between Basalt and the upper valley, many in the Capitol Creek and Snowmass Creek valleys.

Bilby said the energy consumption of the Basalt Vista homes will be compared to the older generation all-electric homes to measure if the new systems are truly more beneficial and, if so, by how much.

Another experiment he is eager to undertake is to see if energy production and storage in three of the units at Basalt Vista could fully supply the fourth unit — creating a more resilient system.

Holy Cross Energy’s experiment is funded for four months, though the cooperative hopes to extend it. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden will help analyze the performance of the systems, recommend adjustments and determine how they can be used on a broader scale.

The goal of the experiment is to create self-regulating systems that Holy Cross Energy can offer to its customers, Bilby said. The energy cooperative wants renewable energy to account for 70% of its energy portfolio by 2030.

Even without being a living lab for energy use, Basalt Vista is a unique project due to unparalleled cooperation. Roaring Fork School District supplied the land for the project, which will total 27 units. Pitkin County supplied some of the construction funding. In return for their contributions, the two entities receive units for teachers and people who work in the county.

Habitat for Humanity is constructing the project. Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork President Scott Gilbert said Basalt Councilman Auden Schendler really pushed the concept of an all-electric, net-zero project back in the planning phase.

The Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, backed the idea with a $100,000 grant to help offset higher construction costs. CORE officials convinced Habitat to not even run a gas line to the site as a backup, according to CORE Executive Director Mona Newton and Gilbert.

“The big fear was, if we put it in we’re going to use it,” Gilbert said.

Eschewing a gas line saved about $30,000.

The buildings in Basalt Vista are models of energy efficient construction that exceed local building codes.

“Energy efficiency is No.1,” Bilby said. “You need to check that box first.”

Gilbert added, “The less power you need, the less you have to produce.”

Everything from heating-cooling systems to food preparation will be electric. But rather than relying on the grid — a mix of renewable and fossil fuel energy sources — each home with have its own 10-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system on the roof.

While efficient, the units are also all-electric, so they required solar PV systems that are larger than might be typically found in units that are 1,100 to 1,550 square feet.

Sunsense Solar of Carbondale, a regular collaborator with Habitat for Humanity, is installing the solar PV systems.

“This will be our 15th and 16th building that we’ve installed for Habitat,” Sunsense owner Scott Ely said.

The first four units are scheduled to be completed by June 1. Holy Cross Energy and its partners will experiment with the regulation and storage system for about one month before the owners move in. The experiment will continue for another three months before the batteries and regulating systems are removed. However, all 27 units will be all-electric, net-zero.

CORE’s Newton hopes that Basalt Vista becomes a model for housing in the valley.

“I would like to see all affordable housing in the valley be net–zero,” she said. “We want everybody to have access to clean energy and efficient buildings.”

Basalt Vista sits on a bench south of Basalt High School. Looming in the view across the valley is the burn scar of the Lake Christine Fire. Holy Cross infrastructure was damaged in the fire and power distribution from its sub-station near Lake Christine was threatened in the early days of the blaze.

Bilby said the experience in last year’s fire makes the Basalt Vista experiment even more important. It could be the key to creating neighborhoods that won’t be in the dark if a disaster knocks out the grid.

“A year later, we’re building an all-electric, net-zero, self-reliant community,” he said.


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