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Zero energy homeowners in Issaquah get checks, not bills, from electric company

An energy monitor in Bryan Bell's home shows him how many watts he's using and how much it's costing him. As you can see, he's currently making money from Puget Sound Energy. (Rachel Belle/KIRO Radio)

Last year, Bryan Bell and his wife bought their first home in the Issaquah Highlands. It’s a zHome, one of 10 zero energy, carbon neutral townhouses that are some of the most energy efficient in the country. So energy efficient, in fact, that Puget Sound Energy sends Bryan checks instead of bills.

“We get a check at the end of the year,” Bell said. “This year we got $1,100 back. They pay 15 cents per kilowatt hour that we sell back to them.”

About nine months out of the year, the home relies almost completely on solar panels for energy. Bell says he pays PSE between $50 and $90 a month, in the winter months, but in the end he gets that money back.

The zHomes were built in 2011, and Built Green just released a new report on how well they are performing.

“These homes also use very little water compared to the average home,” Built Green program manager Leah Missik explains. “They use 70 percent less, in fact. That’s because they use rain water to flush the toilets and to do the laundry in these homes, which makes total sense.”

“In addition to that, the homes are extremely energy efficient to begin with,” she continues. “So they have really amazing insulation, all the appliances are Energy Star appliances. We have geothermal heat pumps that help heat the homes. We have radiant floor heating, which means that water circulates beneath the floors and warms up the homes. So it’s really comfortable and it also saves a lot of money.”

The house comes with two handheld monitors so the homeowner can see, in real time, how much water and energy they’re using throughout the day.

“So it shows how many watts we’re using at any given time,” Bell said. “And it also shows the cost of those watts we’re using. You’ll notice that, for instance, right now it’s at negative 1,100 watts. That’s because our solar panels are generating energy so we’re actually making 12 cents an hour right now.”

Missik says the City of Issaquah is devoted to building green and sustainable. In fact, every single building on the Issaquah Highlands, both businesses and homes, are either LEED or Green certified.

“The City of Issaquah actually brokered a deal where they would give land for free to a builder if they agreed to hit these certain environmental benchmarks when they’re building,” Missik said. “These homes are at the forefront of what homes will be in a few years, we hope. We’re seeing more and more deep green homes being built.”

The goal was to keep the zHomes pretty affordable. Bell and his wife bought their home for $400,000.

“The very cheapest, which was a studio, sold for $244,000,” Missik said. “And then the most expensive one, which was a three bedroom, sold for just under $600,000. We wanted these homes to be accessible to the average person and we wanted to make sure that this was a good example that anybody could live this way.”

Ninety percent of the wood in the zHouses are reclaimed, recycled, or grown in sustainable harvested forests. And the house is full of windows so lights aren’t needed during the day.

Missik says people need to change their mindset about building and buying.

“Solar panels cost money to put on a home. So people see that price tag and think, oh, never mind. They don’t consider that in a few years they’re going to already get that much money back and then after that they’re going to be earning even more money. So I think what we need to consider is the lens and how we view money. If we look at something as being a one time payment, that’s very different than saying, okay, if I look over the course of a couple years, I’ll actually be making money.”

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