Farhar: If You Build Net-Zero, They Will Buy

By, Alex Abdallah and Gina R. Johnson

“We know how; it’s just a matter of the political will to do it.”

Even in a career producing research lauded by her peers as among the most valuable work the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has funded, the report on which Barbara C. Farhar, Ph.D., based her award-winning 2008 SOLAR TODAY feature was a standout. The breakthrough study of a Shea Homes development in San Diego, the first high-performance community in the nation, found that people who bought high-performance homes were the same demographically as those who bought similarly priced new homes in nearby developments.

The survey’s conclusions, published in SOLAR TODAY’s “Advancing a Market for Zero-Energy Homes,” reshaped the way the industry had been thinking about early-adopter behavior. Although some people bought the homes because they cared about efficiency, the salespeople found it easier to sell the house and then mention, “By the way, it comes with a PV system.”

It was now apparent that the key to adoption was making high-performance houses available, at prices comparable to neighbor homes. “The market is there, people will buy them. They don’t have to be early adopters,” Farhar said. “So the constraint is not the customer; the constraint is, where are these developments in our market?”

Another critical finding was that it’s more cost-effective and efficient for the builder to offer photovoltaics and high-efficiency features standard, because they can buy in bulk and standardize building. According to anecdotal evidence, Farhar said, many subsequent builders of high- performance communities have found it cost-effective to do so.

Graph Advancing Market for Zero-Energy Homes
Farhar | Published in SOLAR TODAY, Jan/Feb 2008, “Advancing a Market for Zero-Energy Homes.”

With such compelling benefits, it’s no wonder she is convinced that high-performance homes should be a building requirement. “After all,” Farhar said, “we mandate indoor plumbing, we mandate homes and furnaces and so forth, so it is in the public interest that houses be energy-efficient.” Such a requirement would spur further efficiencies and cost savings. Said Farhar, “We know how; it’s just a matter of the political will to do it.”

Farhar gained national recognition for her work on the human dimensions of energy efficiency and renewable energy as a senior policy analyst at NREL. Now retired from NREL, Farhar studies customer response to the smart grid as a senior research associate at the University of Colorado, where she is the principal investigator of a Toyota-sponsored study of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in a smart-grid environment.

In advance energy savings over the next 25 years, Farhar sees a huge need to institutionalize a retrofit process for existing housing. For example, she said, the utility or the city might audit each home, make efficiency upgrades and fund the retrofits with utility bill savings.

Of course, human behavior will remain a vital ingredient to true change, and that’s where feedback technologies come in, Farhar says. She references “peer pressure” social-norming programs, such as Opower’s Facebook project and Xcel Energy’s beta program, which allow users to compare their energy performance to neighbors’. Said Farhar, “Studies show that if people get feedback in real time, disaggregated by end-use, that’s the kind of information they can put to use.”

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