The Cannery can be Davis’ new green standard

By From page A6 | September 24, 2013

By Mark Braly and members of the Valley Climate Action Center board of directors

Davis has a goal, adopted by the City Council in 2006, of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We have a long way to go to achieve this goal. We make the task more difficult with each new house we build in Davis whose carbon emissions are more than net zero.

The Cannery project, the only large development in Davis in the foreseeable future, proposes 547 single-family homes that do not achieve net-zero electricity, let alone net-zero carbon emissions.

That technologies for net-zero energy homes are available is not in question. And prices are falling. ConAgra, owner and developer of The Cannery, has committed to including many green features, such as partial solar electric systems, as standard in the single-family homes. They also plan to offer two higher-cost packages of options: one for zero electricity (with natural gas) and another for zero energy (all electric).

The issue is: Should the city require one of these packages as standard? ConAgra estimates that the net-zero electricity package will increase the average home price by $16,000, an amount that likely would raise the average new home price by 3 to 4 percent. The net-zero carbon home, according to ConAgra, would add about twice that much.

The question is: How much would these additional features add to the price if they were made standard? With the information we have now, there is no way to know.

Historically, the city must play blackjack with a developer; the city shows its cards, but the developer doesn’t. ConAgra has hired Davis Energy Group, one of the nation’s most qualified energy consulting firms, to advise it, but the results are not available to the city’s decision-makers and the public.

ConAgra says these features will add to the cost of the homes, possibly making them unaffordable to many groups that should live in Davis, such as our teachers and other public employees. But will they? Or will they sell at market price, regardless of their cost of construction? That market is strong and, with so few homes for sale, it is likely to get stronger.

This is why the Valley Climate Action Center, a nonprofit dedicated to implementation of the city’s Climate Action Plan, has proposed that either the Davis Energy Group information be made public, or the city bring in its own analysts, at the developer’s expense, to determine whether net-zero energy homes can cost-effectively be offered to the public as standard.

Other developers currently sell standard “net-zero” electric homes in Rio Vista and other nearby markets that are less robust than Davis. If these upgrades do raise the price of the homes, low mortgage rates mean these features typically can be paid for with monthly mortgage costs that are lower than the monthly energy cost savings.

But another compelling reason to require a net-zero standard is simplicity. When buying new homes, customers appreciate choices in things that show, where they have the opportunity to express their own taste. In hidden features that affect energy performance, the choices can bewilder most buyers, and with the choices come major inefficiencies.

The sales team would need to be fully educated on the energy features, and some would sell the options harder than others. Most of the options are way more expensive to add later, so if a buyer realizes their value after moving in, it is too late to add them cost-effectively.

George Phillips, spokesman for the project for ConAgra, says it is better to give home buyers the choice. But if the state’s Title 24 energy efficiency standards were optional, our energy and climate future would be grim indeed.

If net-zero electricity is standard, almost everyone wins. The buyers get lower monthly costs and the personal satisfaction of helping our community deal with carbon emissions. The developer gets better pricing from the subcontractors because of volume and standardization. Further, the developer’s sales costs go down because there are fewer options. Finally, they will sell more houses because most people would like to buy and live in an affordable, comfortable net-zero home.

The city and (we) citizens are rewarded by positive steps toward a key city goal. OK, PG&E has lower revenues, but they still have the rest of us as a huge revenue base!

Davis’ planning staff has indicated that The Cannery meets the city’s standards for greenhouse gas emissions adopted by the City Council in 2008. But that standard expired in 2010. The council adopted the standards for only two years for good reason: It recognized that the standards needed to be upgraded frequently to keep up with new technical and economic developments.

Unfortunately, the expired standards haven’t been upgraded. But they are being used by staff to evaluate this project. The Cannery is a singular opportunity to upgrade our standards now. Evidence suggests that the new standard should be net-zero energy, a new standard that will not set us back from our goal of carbon neutrality.

— Members of the Valley Climate Action Center board are Mark Braly, president, and Christine Backman, Richard Bourne, Gerald Braun, Joshua Cunningham, Bill Julian, Matt Seitzler, Jenifer Segar, Matthews Williams and Eugene Wilson

Special to The Enterprise

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