State Issues

What good are ‘affordable’ homes if you can’t pay the utility bills?

Solar panels on a home can reduce electricty costs to virtually nothing.
Solar panels on a home can reduce electricty costs to virtually nothing. File

As the construction superintendent for Habitat for Humanity of San Joaquin County, I have learned a thing or two about building affordable housing in the Central Valley. Based on my experience, California’s strong building energy efficiency standards – known as Title 24 – save families money and help them stay in their homes, year after year after year.

Affordable housing isn’t just about manageable mortgage payments. It’s also about ensuring the cost of actually living in the house – keeping the lights on, the water hot, the rooms comfortable – don’t cost so much that you can’t afford the monthly payment. Bluntly, there’s no point in building cheap houses if the people who live in them have to mortgage their kids to pay the utility bills.

That’s why the Habitat for Humanity homes we sell to families that need decent, affordable housing are designed to be as energy-efficient as possible. It’s also why we’re adding solar panels whenever we can. If you craft a tight, solid house that doesn’t waste energy, you cut energy use and that cuts utility bills. Letting the sun generate some of that energy, cuts utility bills even further.

PG&E studied one house we built in Stockton. The family of four who own it ran up electricity bills totaling $300 – for the entire year. Since this house was equipped with solar panels, it actually generated more energy than it used – meaning it is a Zero Net Energy home.

Residential buildings account for one-third of energy use statewide. To save energy and to help meet pollution reduction goals, California is required to update its energy codes for homes every three years. The state is considering the next round of standards, set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, now. The proposed standards would boost energy efficiency, saving families money every month while providing healthier and more comfortable homes.

The proposed residential energy code would require new homes to either have a renewable energy source – like rooftop solar – or have access to shared renewable energy sources. This would cut families’ electric bills and provide reliability in the event of power outages.

Some say this solar requirement will make new houses unaffordable. Based on our experience at Habitat, I don’t think so. We save money on our ultra-efficient, solar-panel-equipped houses compared to traditional building methods, even if you factor in the free labor from volunteers.

Limiting the length of ductwork, using less lumber and more insulation, and keeping all the plumbing close to the water heater cuts energy use and saves us a lot on materials.

With some housing designs, solar panels might add a bit to the up-front cost of a home. But given the continued savings on electricity, homeowners are sure to save on energy bills. It’s important. A study from the University of Colorado found that not being able to pay utility bills is a leading cause of homelessness, second only to domestic violence.

I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I live in a 1950s house, and I’ve had enough. In January, my propane and electric bills cost twice as much as my mortgage. So I’m building a new house that will be much more energy efficient – equipped with solar photovoltaic panels and battery backup. Moving to a more efficient home powered with help from the sun makes sense for me. It will also make sense for families across the Central Valley.

George Koertzen is construction superintendent for Habitat for Humanity of San Joaquin County.