The gray patches on the rooftops of the buildings in West Village are solar panels, demonstrating the vast network of energy-generating panels throughout the growing community. It’s built on UC Davis land west of Highway 113. West Village Partnership/Courtesy photo

UC Davis

‘Learning as we go': West Village at 87% of goal

By From page A1 | November 27, 2013

Net zero? Not yet.

But some of the minds behind West Village said Tuesday that they were upbeat about a report that found their “living laboratory” produced 87 percent of the power that it consumed over a one-year period.

“Eighty-seven percent, we think, is really quite an accomplishment for just the first phase of building,” said Sid England, UC Davis assistant vice chancellor for environmental stewardship and sustainability. “For the first time, we’re able to compare what the models said with what’s going on in reality, and we think it’s really good.”

Net zero is an ongoing goal, he added: “We’re learning as we go.”

UCD and its private partner, West Village Community Partnership, fell shy of their long-term goal — taking zero net energy from the grid on an annual basis — partly because of higher-than-expected energy use by student residents and the need for fine-tuning of some equipment.

Expanding programs to encourage lower energy use, adding more photovoltaic panels and a campus biodigester coming online will help West Village reach its goal, according to the partners.

West Village’s solar production during the study period was 2,981 megawatt hours of electricity, or seven more than anticipated. The neighborhood used 3,412 megawatt hours — 622 more than the model anticipated.

“When this was modeled five, eight years ago, I don’t think that we assumed that every resident would have as many devices as they do — an iPhone, an iPad, a laptop, a gaming system and a TV all in their room — so our plug load is a lot higher than we assumed,” said Stephanie Martling, director of asset management for developer Carmel Partners.

Energy consumption estimates were based on multi-family units in the region, England said, but each bedroom turned out to be more like a household.

The new apartments featured a GreenWave Reality panel allowing residents to more closely monitor and control their energy consumption, down to individual outlets.

The system interfered with Internet signals, however, so it was scrapped within a year, Martling said. (Internet-access problems remain a problem at West Village, but management is attempting to find a long-term fix, she said).

Students can still log on to a website to check out how much power they’re using, “but we don’t have a great response rate at this time,” she said.

Martling said that while new GreenWave-like monitoring and control equipment is a possibility, West Village is focusing first on reducing the amount of power students use. During the study period, some used as much as three times more than their neighbors.

Management is now knocking on the doors of those using the most, talking to residents about energy hogs, like mini refrigerators and space heaters, and seeking out thermostats set to “on” rather than “auto.”

In partnership with PG&E, Architectural Energy Corp. has been studying how best to engage residents. A 140-apartment project will mix educational programs with ideas like competitions between buildings with prizes like pizza.

“We’re really trying to incentivize good behavior,” Martling said.

Researchers and industry experts are also being brought in to give educational talks. This week, students are being urged to seal windows and unplug gadgets and appliances before heading home for Thanksgiving break.

Another challenge: heat pump water heaters for student housing.

They initially failed to perform up to specifications and often shifted over automatically to a less efficient back-up setting to meet the hot water demand.

The equipment has since been given a tune-up, and the pumps are checked frequently, Martling said.

This first of planned annual reports covers the period from March 2012 to February 2013, chosen, England said, because a significant number of buildings were occupied by then and corresponding solar panels had come online.

The report includes the 846 bedrooms then complete, a community center and about 35,000 square feet of office and retail space occupied by UCD energy and transportation researchers, as well as by a coffee shop and convenience store.

The Sacramento City College Center at West Village is not included in the report because the Los Rios Community College District chose to meet its own building standards rather than take part in the net-zero project.

Analysis by the Davis Energy Group found heating and cooling systems lived up to expectations. So did solar, though the consultants urged more frequent cleaning of dust from the panels.

West Village’s greatest success comes from its design, England said:

“California has the most stringent energy-efficiency code in the country. By putting energy efficiency into our designs here, we’ve cut in half the amount of electricity below that already stringent standard.”

Said Bob Segar, assistant vice chancellor for campus planning and community resources, “You’re designing (energy) out of the system. That’s the most powerful move, because it means you’re not even looking for a substitute source.”

Since the end of the study period, the full 1,980 bedrooms planned have been completed and are about 99 percent occupied. About 7,000 square feet of retail space remains vacant.

Plans call for 343 single-family houses to eventually be built on the 200-acre site, bringing the neighborhood’s population to an estimated 3,500. Model homes are set to be built in the spring.

A new biodigester under construction on the site of UCD’s now-closed landfill, north of Putah Creek and west of County Road 98, will boost energy production for the campus. The biodigester should begin producing electricity from landfill gas in the next few days and be fully operational, taking in all of UCD’s food waste, manure and some green waste, by mid- to late winter.

When completed, it will produce upwards of 4,000 megawatt-hours of energy — eight times West Village’s energy shortfall during the study period and more than enough to reach the net zero goal.

England said UCD isn’t yet sure how much energy it will count toward the neighborhood’s goal, however.

A biodigester had been planned for the West Village itself, but UCD seized the chance to create a larger demonstration site with private partner Clean World Sacramento.

Segar said that’s in keeping with aspirations to work on a community scale.

“Part of the West Village experiment is, What can you do at the scale of the light bulb. Or inside a unit or a building or a row of buildings? Or, in the case of the biodigester, even bigger than what the West Village community can produce (in waste to fuel it)?”

Other research projects underway in West Village include using solar energy stored in batteries to charge electric vehicles and an American Honda Motor Co. “smart home” demonstration project.

On land leased from the university, the company’s house will include a solar power system, energy-efficient heating, cooling and lighting designed at UCD and direct solar-to-vehicle charging.

Ralph Cavanagh, energy program co-director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that by developing and testing new technology and learning how to better influence consumers, West Village will provide “valuable lessons that reverberate far beyond Davis.”

“The world is full of people who are enthusiastically trying to do one-off zero-net-energy buildings, but the future here really lies in doing it at community scale,” Cavanagh said. 

Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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