Green Ideas...

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Arizona Townhomes go Solar

Ryan Randazzo
The Arizona RepublicJan. 16, 2008 12:00 AM

Catalyst Communities founder Chad Gifford is gambling. He's willing to bet there are 36 home buyers in central Phoenix that are so frugal with their electricity that he'll pay their utility bills if they buy his solar-powered town houses.

Catalyst Communities will give buyers a credit for their electricity bills for the first five years so they won't have any electricity bill.

If residents use more electricity than the credit, Catalyst will pay the difference. If buyers use less electricity than the credit, they can keep the money.

"We think this community appeals to like-minded people who are conscious about the environment," Gifford said. "We are willing to take that risk.

"The proposed project, Aura, is at 25th Street and Campbell Avenue, just south of Camelback Road. Floor plans for the proposed community will range from $800,000 to $1.2 million. Private investors are financing the project, according to Aura.

"You notice what globally is happening with energy prices and what is happening with global warming," Gifford said. "There is an impetus for doing something different in the marketplace.

"Gifford hopes to have the proper permits in hand and begin building in spring. A sales office is scheduled to open next week.

The rooftop solar arrays will cover about two-thirds of the homes' energy needs, while efficient design, such as insulating window glass, will keep demand low, he said.

The development is planned in Salt River Project territory. The utility pays wholesale prices for surplus electricity generated from rooftop solar systems but doesn't carry kilowatt-hours over from one month to the next, like Arizona Public Service Co., which credits customers at retail rates.

"We've taken the pain out of trying to give back," Gifford said. "You can have a luxury feel and you don't have to compromise. "Agenera, a Phoenix commercial solar-power provider, is consulting for Gifford on the solar-power systems for Aura.

"For some people, if they are ecologically minded and frugal, it will cover about 100 percent of their energy needs," Agenera founder Mike Eisele said. "But the typical homeowners needs some electricity at night, and at Aura you still are connected to the utility (for those needs).

"Other Valley boutique developers, including Modus Development, have proposed high-end, solar-powered homes.

Initial interest in a small solar-powered project near the Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt in Scottsdale is so strong that Modus is adding solar as an option at a central Phoenix project just north of Gifford's development and another in Scottsdale, founder Ed Gorman said.

"Everybody wants to be 'green,' but they don't always understand the technology," Gorman said. "You tell them it will save them money, and they get it. "Utility regulators hope the pioneers like Catalyst and Modus are successful so more builders join in.

"This ought to be an option for home buyers just like putting in granite countertops," Arizona Corporation Commissioner Kris Mayes said. "In this time of rising energy prices, it is a more important option for homeowners.

"Mayes has been meeting with major builders in the region the past year to ask why they don't offer solar systems on new homes, which is easier and more cost-effective than adding a system later, she said.

Developers tell her than anything that adds to the price of a home is problematic in the currently sluggish market. She has suggested at a minimum wiring the attics in new homes to be "solar ready."

"The fact of the matter is energy prices are rising across the country and solar is a way to shield them from those cost increases," Mayes said.

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