Kent State Geauga Students Learn that Sustainable Solar Homes are Feasible & Affordable
Naysayers warned her that it couldn’t be done in Geauga County. But Jacqueline Samuel persisted. After a year of construction, she now lives in the first net-zero house in the region. Despite its location in cloudy northeast Ohio, this solar-powered house is producing more energy than it consumes, without burning fossil fuels.
A group of students in an Understanding Architecture class at Kent State Geauga recently took a tour of Samuel’s Amish-built home to get a hands-on sense of what’s possible. They were brought there by Ravenna architect Sean Thompson, who is an adjunct faculty member in the College of Architecture & Environmental Design and an Advisory Board member for Kent State University Geauga Campus.
Thompson says that his students care about the concept of sustainability, and they are eager to learn how to apply that ethic in their lifestyles and adult choices, including “the built environment,” as Prof. Thompson refers to it. “Being a believer in experiential learning, I think anytime students can walk through a building and touch it, and experience it. It’s far more impactful than just seeing pictures and listening to me talk about it.“
For those who want to be environmentally responsible when considering new home construction, it all starts with awareness. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings in the U.S. account for 70% of the nation’s electricity consumption and roughly 40% of its carbon emissions — more than the country’s transportation or industry sectors. Net-zero or zero-energy homes are vital in the effort to help society reach a reduced-carbon future that reduces or eliminates reliance on fossil fuels.
If Samuel’s solar-powered house produces as much electricity as it uses after one full year, it is considered net-zero, and better still, non-polluting. So far, it’s doing better than breaking even. Samuel received her first electric bill from the illuminating company for September and owed $0.00. Even better, she received a $30 credit for the electricity her solar panels generated for the electric grid in a month.
“The electric energy I use so far is much less than I generate,” Samuel says. “This goes to show that sustainability can be feasible and affordable. And you don’t have to build new to become sustainable. You can retrofit an existing house with solar panels and more insulation to reduce your carbon footprint and make a contribution to the health of the planet.”
Designed by local architect and Kent State alum (Class of ’72) Hank Penttila, the passive solar design of this south-facing house takes maximum advantage of the sun as it moves across the sky. While major windows and living spaces are oriented to the south, windows to the north are minimized. A super-insulated floor, airtight double-wall construction, and a two-foot-deep insulated roof contribute to low air infiltration. The dark wood floor and the mass of concrete below it store the sun’s heat, keeping floor surfaces toasty when it’s cold outside.
The heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system consists of a highly efficient electric heat pump and an Energy Recovery Ventilator (EVR). The heat pump provides heating in winter and air-conditioning in summer. The EVR exhausts stale air outside and pulls fresh air inside. In winter, it recovers the heat of the exhausted air to warm incoming cold, fresh air. In summer, the cycle is reversed.
Thirty-five solar panels mounted on the south-facing metal roof collect and convert the sun’s rays into electricity, making it available for immediate use. If it isn’t needed, excess electricity is directed back into the electric grid, and the utility company gives the credit to Samuel. During the darkest days of winter, the panels may not produce an adequate amount of electricity. At such times, electricity will be provided by the local power company. This electricity usage will be offset by excess power generated by the panels during those sunny days of summer.
While solar construction costs $25 more per square foot than a conventional house, Samuel says the up-front costs are minimized by the IRS, which offers a 30% deduction for active solar construction costs. Add these savings to the free solar-powered electric generation, and soon the cost-benefit analysis points to feasible and affordable renewable energy.
“My aim is to make people who assume it’s way too expensive and that we don’t have enough sunshine to think again,” Samuel says. “I’d like to spread the word: Solar energy is the way of the future. It can be done in Northeast Ohio!”
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has established a goal that all new buildings in the U.S. will be built to a net-zero energy standard by 2030. With only a decade to go, there is a lot of work to be done, but Jacqueline Samuel is leading the way in Geauga County.