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'Green' house will help save greenbacks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's not for sale just yet, but homeowners anxious about rising electricity rates may want to take note: A builder has just put the finishing touches on a new four-bedroom house in Bel Air that should cost less than half as much to heat, cool and turn on the lights as do comparable traditional homes.

At times, the electric meter on the "Greenland" home by Bob Ward Companies even runs backward - supplying power to BGE and earning the future owner a credit on his or her utility bill.

With electricity rates set to increase Saturday and heating oil and natural gas prices already soaring, more Marylanders are starting to look for ways to keep their utility bills manageable.

This Bel Air prototype, a collaboration between the building industry and government, is part of a growing effort to promote more energy efficiency and "green" design in new construction.

"The future is now when it comes to renewable energy," said Frederick G. Davis, director of the Maryland Energy Administration.

Government officials are responding by offering more grants, low-interest loans and tax credits to install or retrofit solar collectors and other energy-saving devices or systems. Baltimore County, for instance, is eyeing a 10-year property tax credit for "high-performance" commercial or office buildings - though nothing just yet for homes.

Homebuilders, meanwhile, are taking a closer look at reducing the energy appetites of their McMansions, anticipating the day when buyers ask for solar hot-water heaters as often as they now opt for granite countertops.

Bob Ward, which builds homes in the Baltimore area and in southern Pennsylvania, constructed the "PowerHouse," as the Bel Air prototype is dubbed, in cooperation with a federal research program aimed at developing "zero energy" homes by 2020.

The PowerHouse looks pretty much like any other Greenland - one of eight home designs offered by Bob Ward Companies, one of the Baltimore area's larger homebuilders. The two-story house has a stone facade and two-car garage - but with flat, black solar panels hugging two sides of the roof. One solar collector heats the home's water, the other generates electricity.

Inside, the energy-saving improvements are mostly hidden but no less significant. The basement is fully insulated, for instance, built of precast concrete and steel packed with foam. There's extra insulation in the attic as well, plus double-paned, high-performance windows.

At certain times, particularly when the air conditioner or furnace aren't needed, the photovoltaic system generates more electricity than the house needs, providing power to BGE's grid serving Bel Air. Under state law, that can earn the owner a credit on the power bill for the costs of the electricity supplied.

Officials with the National Association of Home Builders Research Center, who helped with the home's design, estimate the upgrades should lower utility bills by more than $200 a month. Occupants of a traditionally built Greenland-style home pay $378 a month on average, while the PowerHouse ought to cost $173.

Impressive as the utility savings promise to be, they're not enough to put solar panels on every new home. The upgrades on the Bel Air home added about $50,000 to its cost, said Linda Veach, president of Bob Ward Companies - and that's a price few buyers are willing to shoulder right now. Her firm has been participating in government programs encouraging energy-efficient homes for years.

"People aren't asking for it," said Veach, who's also president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "If they ask for granite countertops, that's what we give them. If they ask for energy efficiency, that's what we give them."

Still, Veach said, her company intends to incorporate some of the energy-saving techniques into its standard home designs - enough to lower utility costs 5 percent to 10 percent by eliminating drafts and "cold spots."

Experts in "green" building say builders could be producing energy self-sufficient homes now, if they made more radical design changes.

"What they need to do really is go and look at the orientation and the actual design of the house and use the house more as a solar collector," said Stanley J. Sersen, president of the Green Building Institute in Jessup. Putting most of the windows on the southern side of the house, for instance, would increase warming in winter.

But officials say they're looking for easy-to-adopt energy-saving techniques that don't require major changes in home design or lifestyle.

"A research result that sits on the shelf isn't going to save anyone any energy," said Edward O. Pollock Jr., team leader for residential research at the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Bel Air house, Pollock said, is one of the most energy efficient that has been built under his agency's program. Not counting the photovoltaic system, which cost about $35,000 alone, he said, the utility savings at the demonstration house may be greater than all the other costs incurred.

Governments are expanding their incentives for installing solar or other energy conservation devices in homes. The federal income tax credit for solar systems has been expanded to 30 percent.

In Maryland, homeowners can get up to $3,000 from the state toward the cost of a photovoltaic system, up to $2,000 for a solar-powered water heater, and up to $1,000 for a geothermal heating and cooling system. This year, with just $75,000 to give out, the state agency awarded 30 grants. But the legislature boosted funding for next year to $1.5 million, and there already have been 30 applications. In the past few weeks, with BGE rate increases looming, there have been 400 inquiries, according to Davis.

Local governments also are starting to get in on the act. Howard County, for instance, offers a three-year property-tax credit covering up to 20 percent of the costs of an energy conservation device, depending on how efficient it is. But Linda Watts, chief of revenue for the county's Department of Finance, said no one has applied for the four-year-old credit.

That could be because to be eligible, an applicant must prove that the device and the building meet standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council. The documentation required adds to the cost, experts say.

"I think we may need to do a little promoting," said Marsha McLaughlin, Howard's planning director. Public interest is growing, she noted, because of rising energy costs and concerns about global warming.

The Baltimore County Council is weighing whether to enact a tax credit for high-performance commercial buildings. It would cover up to 100 percent of the building's tax bill for 10 years, though owners must again prove that the structure meets a high "green" building standard. The measure is to be reviewed by the council at a work session Tuesday and may be voted on July 3.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, one of the bill's sponsors, said he would like to offer similar tax incentives for homes, but worries about the cost and quality control. As it is, the high-performance building tax credit, if passed, would be capped so that the county doesn't lose more than $1 million a year in revenue.

"I think we should look at it, but don't know whether it's economically feasible," Gardina said.

Some aren't waiting for tax credits, though. "Since BGE announced its rate increases, demand has just gone through the roof," said Isaac Opalinsky, sales manager for Aurora Energy, which installed the solar energy systems in the Bel Air house.

While federal, state and local grants and tax breaks aren't enough to overcome the high cost of a typical residential photovoltaic system, a solar water heater costing $4,000 to $6,000 can pay for itself in lower utility bills in five to 10 years, said Opalinsky - even sooner if energy costs keep climbing.

Bob Ward Companies plans to keep the PowerHouse in Bel Air for about a year to show building contractors, school groups and others about the benefits of energy efficiency. After that, it will be sold, say company executives - for a price as yet unset.

Meanwhile, Opalinsky said, the Bel Air house stands as tangible evidence that energy efficiency is compatible with today's suburban living.

"It's not a techie, geeky house. We're not talking geodesic domes or yurts out in the woods," he said. "Any family of four would be happy to live in this house."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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