She wanted classic style, he wanted a net-zero energy house.

July 26, 2015
Jamie Clark, a Lexington energy consultant and contractor, renovated an older home in Chevy Chase to see if he could create a "net zero" energy house that looks like a typical house most people in Lexington want to own. So far, his project has been a success.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Jamie Clark, a Lexington energy consultant, renovated a circa 1958 house in Chevy Chase to see if he could create a “net zero” energy house that looks like a typical Lexington house. Photos by Tom Eblen

The solar panels that help power Jamie Clark's renovated house in Chevy Chase are hidden on the back roof, visible only from the very back of his back yard.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The solar panels that help power Clark’s renovated house in Chevy Chase are hidden on the back roof, visible only from the very back of his back yard.

 

When Jamie and Haley Clark decided to move closer to town and Christ the King School, where their two young daughters are students, they each knew what kind of house they wanted. Trouble was, they didn’t want the same thing.

“She wanted a very Southern Living house,” Jamie Clark said, referring to the lifestyle magazine. “I wanted a net-zero house.”

Kentucky doesn’t have many net-zero houses, which use insulation, solar power and other technology to create as much energy as they use over the course of a year. And few of them look like the traditional homes that most Lexington buyers want.

Jamie Clark of Lexington is an energy-efficiency consultant and contractor.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Jamie Clark

Clark, who works as an energy-efficiency consultant and sells geothermal systems for Climate Control Heating & Air, took that as a challenge.

“Part of my goal was to prove that you could build net zero in Chevy Chase,” he said as he stood outside the house they bought two years ago and drastically renovated. “This would fit in in any neighborhood in Lexington.”

Clark searched Chevy Chase for a house for sale with the right orientation to the sun. He found a one-story ranch on Prather Road, built in 1958 with salvaged brick, and began renovations. Haley Clark sketched what she wanted, and architect Van Meter Pettit turned her ideas into construction drawings.

The Clarks rearranged the existing house and added about 1,000 square feet. The result was 2,978 square feet of living space above ground, plus 1,856 in the finished basement.

They put the master suite on the first floor and added a second story with Cape Cod dormers in the bedrooms of their daughters, Alexandra 8, and Catherine, 5. The girls’ double bathroom was designed with their teenage years in mind.

“I just turned 40 and I never plan to move again,” Clark said. “We were really mindful of growing in this house.”

The first step in creating a net-zero house is insulation; less energy used means less must be generated. The Clarks’ contractors installed Icynene spray-foam insulation and energy-efficient Anderson 400 Series low-E windows.

Clark drilled five, 200-foot wells and put in a geothermal system for heating, cooling and hot water. He installed a Climate Master Trilogy 45 heat pump and a highly insulated iGate water tank.

Clark said he spent about $900 on LED light bulbs, whose light quality is comparable to traditional incandescent bulbs. LEDs cost 10 times more than traditional bulbs but use 1⁄10 the electricity and last 10 times longer.

The only incandescent bulbs in the house are on chandeliers that look better with “pretty” bulbs. And there are motion sensors in the girls’ playroom to turn lights on and off automatically.

Jamie Clark installed a super-insulated water heater that works off the geothermal system.

Clark installed a super-insulated water heater that works off the geothermal system.

“It makes a lot more sense to just conserve than to put more solar panels on the roof,” Clark said. “Back in February, when we hit minus 18, I was using less power than the microwave at Super America to heat my house.”

Clark installed new Energy Star-rated appliances. The only natural gas the house uses is for the kitchen stove, and Clark said his monthly meter fee is much higher than the cost of the gas.

To create electricity, Clark installed 20 solar panels on the back roof. They are on the Kentucky Utilities grid, so the house draws power on cloudy days and adds power on sunny days.

Clark wired the system for 40 panels and plans to add more if he needs them. “I’m trying to talk my wife into a Tesla (electric car), and if we do that then I’ll put 20 more panels up there for charging it,” said Clark, who drives a Toyota Prius.

Like other energy systems in the house, the solar panels aren’t visible. “The only place you can see them is if you stand at the back fence line,” he said.

The Clarks moved in last Thanksgiving, so it will be at least a few more months before they know if their house is net zero. Early results are encouraging. The electric bill in December, when there were only six days with more than six hours of sunshine, was $153. But the bills were $11 in March, $30 in April and $9 in May.

Clark did some of the work himself, and he has good contacts in the industry. For an average consumer working with a contractor, Clark’s energy-efficiency measures would cost about $50,000 more than conventional systems, adding about $200 a month to a 30-year mortgage.

“They will more than pay for themselves,” he said, adding that federal tax credits for solar and geothermal systems would reduce costs further.

Over time, savings will be even greater. Electricity costs in Kentucky typically double every decade, but as utilities move away from high-pollution coal, rates could rise more sharply.

“It’s a dream home, that’s for sure,” Clark said of the project that has made him and his wife happy. “It’s everything we wanted.”

A state-of-the-art geo-thermal heating and cooling unit in the basement is a big reason Jamie Clark's renovated house in Chevy Chase is close to net-zero energy usage over the course of the year.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A state-of-the-art geo-thermal heating and cooling unit in the basement is a big reason Clark’s renovated house in Chevy Chase is close to net-zero energy usage over the course of the year.

Jamie Clark's wife wanted a "Southern Living" house, and the energy consultant and contractor wanted a super energy-efficient house. So his renovated house in Chevy Chase has both high style and almost no net energy use over the course of the year, thanks to solar panels, geo-thermal heating and cooling and high-level insulation. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Clark’s wife wanted a “Southern Living” house, and the energy consultant and contractor wanted a super energy-efficient house. So his renovated house in Chevy Chase has both high style and almost no net energy use over the course of the year, thanks to solar panels, geo-thermal heating and cooling and high-level insulation.


Danville company sees bright future in solar energy

October 10, 2011

DANVILLE — The sun shines bright on our Kentucky homes, and Alternative Energies Kentucky LLC thinks that could become a great business opportunity.

Last year, Alternative Energies became Kentucky’s only manufacturer of photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight into electricity to power homes and businesses.

The company has rented office and manufacturing space in the old ATR Wire & Cable plant on Danville’s bypass, trained 10 employees and set up a side business in security systems to cushion its startup.

“It has been slow starting,” said Dan Tolson, one of three partners in the company. Solar power is a novelty in Kentucky, he said, “but we think the potential here is huge. It just makes sense.”

Photovoltaic-panel prices worldwide have fallen more than 30 percent in the past year, making solar power an increasingly viable supplement to conventional power supplies. “The more we use this technology, the cheaper it gets,” AEK partner Troy Lay said.

But on the industry side, the competition is fierce. Chinese companies now have two-thirds of the $39 billion global market for solar panels, thanks to huge subsidies from their government.

Also, Lay said, the industry has been hurt by the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a California company that made a different kind of solar panel that had received $528 million in federal loan guarantees. Solyndra’s failure gave politicians beholden to the fossil-fuel industries a convenient target for attacking the whole idea of investing in alternative energy.

“This is well-proven technology we’re using,” said Lay, adding that the kind of panels AEK makes have been used successfully in Europe for more than three decades. “But we’re still fighting a lot of the same questions.”

Lay said he also faces questions about whether Kentucky has enough sunshine for solar power to be viable. He said Kentucky has far more sunshine than Germany, which gets more of its energy from solar than any other country.

“The idea that we don’t have enough sunshine is crazy,” he said. “I don’t know why that keeps coming up.”

AEK buys silicon wafer cells from Taiwan, solders them together and uses an Italian machine to laminate them with tempered glass to form a tough but flexible and airtight panel that is framed in aluminum.

Completed panels are installed on a building’s roof. The power they produce can be stored in batteries, but most systems are tied into the normal utility grid to supplement and offset power that otherwise would be used.

AEK sells a complete 1.1 kilowatt system — which includes five 31/2-by-5-foot panels, installation and all of the equipment to use and monitor the system’s performance — for $6,999. However, federal and state incentives lower the final cost to $4,400 for homeowners or $3,900 for businesses.

Systems can be expanded by adding panels, an option that will become more attractive if panel costs keep falling. Payback times vary widely, depending on how much electricity is used, a utility’s power rates and how fast those rates rise in the future. Lay estimates that most customers pay for their systems in about 10 years.

One of AEK’s first customers last year was The Animal House, a pet-grooming and boarding business in Versailles. Owner Sharon Hughes said she added six panels to the initial installation and figures she is saving about 30 percent on electricity costs.

“I like having the ability to save energy and use the natural energy out there,” she said.

AEK’s solar panels have an expected useful life of about 50 years, Lay said. They come with a 25-year guarantee, but that depends on the company surviving that long.

So far, AEK has received about $6,000 in state economic incentives for employee training, marketing director John Cotten said. However, state tax breaks could eventually total $1.125 million if the company creates the approximately 30 jobs it hopes to over 15 years.

AEK partner Mike Carpenter said the company would like to become big enough to focus on manufacturing and leave installation to other contractors, and that would create more Kentucky jobs.

“We’re not here to take over the coal business, but solar can be a great asset,” Lay said. “It may not be the complete answer, but it’s going to get better and cheaper.”

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News events show energy status quo must change

March 20, 2011

If we can learn anything from recent headlines, it is that powering our economy and lifestyle will only get more difficult and expensive, at least in the near future.

Japan is struggling to avert catastrophe from an earthquake-damaged nuclear power plant. The crisis has the rest of the world taking a second look at the safety of its nuclear systems.

Kentucky outlawed nuclear power in 1984 until the federal government came up with a plan for storing spent fuel, which it has yet to do. The ban was prompted by a leaking radioactive dump in Fleming County that took years to contain. The state Senate voted last month to repeal the ban, but the bill died in the House.

Should Kentucky reconsider nuclear power, which now provides 20 percent of this nation’s electricity? Maybe so. We’re in no position to ignore any source of energy. But Japan’s disaster reminds us nuclear power is an imperfect, unforgiving technology that can be dangerous and costly.

I spent the early years of my career covering another example, much closer to home.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to parts of Kentucky and six other states, narrowly averted a nuclear accident in 1975 when one of its reactors in Alabama caught fire.

By the time I started covering TVA in 1981, the utility was raising electricity rates and writing off billions of dollars in investment because officials realized the agency was building too many nuclear reactors.

Then, in 1985, TVA shut down all its reactors after its own nuclear engineers secretly came to me and other reporters with evidence that raised questions about whether those plants had been built safely. That led to years of repairs and billions in additional cost.

Coal provides half the nation’s power and more than 90 percent of Kentucky’s power. Electricity has been cheap in this state, because many of the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal have been ignored. That is changing, because it must.

The Environmental Protection Agency last week proposed tighter rules for how much mercury, other toxic substances and particle pollution coal-fired power plants can release into the air. The EPA claims the rules will save 17,000 lives a year, and the $10 billion cost of making plants cleaner would produce $100 billion worth of health and environmental benefits.

Utilities will fight the new rules, just as they fought many previous rules that made coal-fired plants much cleaner and safer. Expect opposition, too, from many politicians, especially those in the pockets of industries that fund their campaigns.

They will say we “can’t afford” to protect public health or the environment, and higher standards will “kill jobs.” Change is inevitable, though, because research shows that pollution and climate change are killing a lot more than jobs.

Many of those same politicians have fought against fuel-economy standards for vehicles, leaving us all the more vulnerable to political instability in the Middle East and rising demand for oil in developing nations such as China and India.

Increasing domestic oil production in ways that harm the environment isn’t the answer, because that would barely make a dent in the price or supply of what is now a globally traded commodity.

So what is the answer? There isn’t one, but many.

We must invest in research and technology to mine, drill and burn coal and oil more cleanly and efficiently. We must incorporate whatever lessons are learned from Japan’s crisis to make nuclear power safer.

We must develop renewable energy sources — solar, wind and biomass — that will be able to sustain civilization long after coal and oil are gone. Government must play a significant role in this research where private industry cannot or will not.

Perhaps more than anything, we must get serious about designing buildings, vehicles and gadgets to use less energy. Conservation isn’t as difficult as many people think. Take, for example, Kentucky’s many new energy-efficient school buildings, including one in Warren County that will generate as much power as it uses.

We have a choice: ignore the headlines and fight inevitable change, or learn from them and get serious about balancing our needs and desires with those of future generations. Anyone who thinks we can maintain our energy status quo is a dim bulb.


Environmental issues will be key for cities, business

May 19, 2009

Madison is a “green” city, and for any of the Commerce Lexington visitors who didn’t believe it, there was a pair of green-colored glasses and a copy of the booklet Green Living for Dummies at their seat.

Seriously, Madison, WI, has long been a pioneer among American cities in looking for ways to improve environmental sustainability. It was among the first cities with curbside recycling, and energy conservation has always been big — thanks to high power costs and below-zero winters.

Other cities and businesses are following Madison’s examples, not just because it’s a good thing to do, but because it makes economic sense and will make even more sense in the future as energy prices rise and the world grapples with increasingly complex environmental issues and depletion of fossil fuels.

“The environmental movement is not a trend,” said Sonya Newenhouse, president of Madison Environmental Group. “It’s like the civil rights movement or the women’s movement.”

Newenhouse was an interesting example not only of Madison’s focus on sustainability, but how its quality of life attracts and retains talented people who build its economic future.

There’s an often-told joke here that Madison’s cab drivers all have PhDs because they came here to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, didn’t want to leave but couldn’t find jobs.

When Newenhouse finished her PhD at the university and couldn’t find a job doing what she wanted to do — environmental sustainability consulting — she started her own firm. It has grown substantially, and now she has started a second company, too.

“I was one of those PhD students who never left,” she said. “I got into the transportation business, although not cab-driving.”

Newenhouse’s firm helps companies become more environmentally friendly and energy efficient — and save money. Among its many services is developing parking and commuting plans.

Her firm also helps companies that are demolishing buildings figure out how to minimize waste. In Madison, 40 percent of landfill waste is from construction and demolition, and the city has laws that require as much as possible to be recycled so the landfills don’t fill up so fast.

A second company she started, Community Car, rents cars by the hour to people who occasionally need a car but don’t want the cost — or environmental impact — of driving one more than they really need.

Jeanne Hoffman, Madison’s sustainability coordinator, said many of the city’s environmental efforts are done in partnership with local companies. “The business community cooperates greatly with the city and with non-profits,” she said.

Among the initiatives are incentives to build environmentally friendly LEED-certified buildings and use sustainable energy. The city’s fire stations have solar thermal systems. There’s a growing interest here in developing wind power.

There are many rebates and tax incentives for installing solar panels to generate power, which people and companies can sell back to the local electric utility for a higher price than electricity they buy.

“It’s a wildly popular program,” Hoffman said. “Businesses had better start thinking about this because it’s going to affect their bottom line.”

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