Pictured: Ron Merkord in front of his solar array at his home in Bardsdale on April 14, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers. 

by Kimberly Rivers
kimberly@vcreporter.com

The science is clear. The time is now. The future is electric. 

Moving away from fossil fuel-based energy and fuels is required to combat a warming planet. But there is still resistance on many fronts to the shift away from the energy sources humans have relied on for more than a century. Whether the objections are related to infrastructure, economic impacts, shifts in job skills or concerns about costs to the individual, the debate over halting the practices that lead to the release of greenhouse gas emissions is heating up.

According to the report “Approaches to Zero Net Energy Cost Effectiveness in New Homes,” published this month by the  Energy Research and Development Division of the California Energy Commission (CEC) (1), “Transitioning to zero net energy all-electric new single-family and multi-family homes by 2023 would result in more than 50 metric tons of carbon dioxide cumulative savings from 2023– 2050…resulting in 3.3 million metric tons net carbon dioxide savings in 2050.” 

A 2018 report issued by the CEC found that greenhouse gas emissions from buildings are second only to transportation in terms of contributing to climate change. (2) With that information the CEC is moving to incentivise zero net energy commercial and residential buildings. 

A “zero net energy” (ZNE) building is defined by the state of California as a building “in which the value of the energy produced by onsite renewable energy resources is equal to the value of the energy consumed annually by the building.” 

STATE INCENTIVES TO DECARBONIZE | California is allocating millions of dollars to incentivise electrification at various stages, including new construction and retrofits. As of April 2021 the following programs are either active or in the process of being implemented:  – Southern California Edison fire rebuild program: provides incentives for all electric rebuilds for homes damaged by wildfires.   – $6.7 million allocated for electric appliances including water pump/heaters, HVAC systems, clothes dryer and induction stoves.  – $31 million for residential and commercial appliance retrofits. – $80 million in contractor incentives to build all electric homes. Details are online at www.cpuc.ca.gov/buildingdecarb 

Climate vs. cost

The debate over the electrification of new construction and of existing homes and buildings is intensifying. Climate activists are asking for legislation that will require all new construction to abandon natural gas connections, incentivise electrification at the local level, and convert municipal-owned properties to electric. These efforts are receiving push back in some areas from elected officials and the fossil fuel industry. The reason, stated again and again, is cost.

During the stakeholder input phase of the recent CEC study, building contractors expressed that “the sooner that full zero net energy compliance is required, the sooner that cost reductions associated with building ZNE homes will occur.” 

Other concerns related to the public market not being ready to fully move to all electric. Those in the building trades expressed concerns that “remaining gas customers would bear the operational and maintenance expenses for the existing gas infrastructure” if its need is reduced, and that there is still “a consistent demand for gas cooktops, gas dryers, and gas furnaces.” Researchers pointed out that public education is an important part of the effort to electrify. 

In August 2020, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) abandoned a long-standing rule that required climate-friendly building approaches to be cost neutral. The newly adopted methodology, referred to as the “Fuel Substitution Test,” requires that mandates aimed at cutting carbon emissions in construction — helping a building reach ZNE status — must save energy and not harm the environment, but do not need to pass a “cost-effectiveness threshold” as previously required by the CPUC’s old “three-prong approach.” (2)

The new approach doesn’t automatically mean changes will cost more, however. In the long run, as technology advances, prices drop, builders become more familiar with the technology and long-term savings are realized and understood, the overall cost to the individual consumer — not to mention to the climate — will be lower. 

Ventura County is in Climate Zone 3. Source: ASHRAE 169 Standards http://www.ashrae.org

Figure 9 shows energy consumption and generation for TDV-ZNE home designs. For both all- electric and mixed fuel homes, the rooftop solar PV system overproduces electricity.

Long-term savings

As of Jan. 1, 2020, all new buildings must comply with standards approved in 2019 by the CEC for building energy efficiency. This includes additions and alterations to residential and nonresidential buildings. 

The 2019 standards emphasize accepted methods of achieving energy efficiency, such as photovoltaic systems and improvements for attics, walls, water, heating and lighting. There is some flexibility in the standards that allow customization based on location. 

Research conducted in April 2021 by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the CEC found “that optimally designed single-family and multifamily homes result in lower customer lifecycle costs for all-electric…cases in all climate zones studied.” 

Researchers also studied “mixed-fuel” homes and examined the potential of “renewable natural gas” (RNG) sourced from landfills, dairies, wastewater treatment plants and other sources. The study identified challenges to this fuel related to infrastructure and supply levels. 

The study found that while all-electric homes did include higher initial costs comparable to “mixed-fuel homes,” eliminating the need for natural gas infrastructure contributed to lower costs upfront. In addition, “all-electric designs, if adopted by contractors, architects, building owners, residents, and property owners, can lower annual energy costs and realize an average of 38 percent annual carbon dioxide savings compared to mixed-fuel family homes.”

Residential buildings used in research that Found all electric a viable economic option with proper design.

The report goes on to say that adoption of “all electric zero net energy homes across California will improve the health and safety of ratepayers by reducing criteria pollutants from natural gas combustion . . .  Reduction of natural gas consumption by broader adoption of alternatives such as electrically powered heat pump-based water heating and space heating, will improve consumer and neighborhood safety by reducing natural gas distribution, possible leakage, and combustion for onsite heat generation.”

The research also anticipates that battery costs will decline in the future. With greater variety in battery size coupled with an expansion of permitting in California, prices on all aspects of going electric will come down.

According to the report, “The falling prices of rooftop solar photovoltaic and battery storage and the increasing availability of supply options such as community solar [where electricity production is shared by more than one household] and renewable natural gas will affect zero net energy new home cost-effectiveness and must be considered in plans for achieving state emissions reduction goals.” 

Electric Farm

The property owned by Ron and Lisa Merkord of Bardsdale demonstrates one way to move toward an all-electric residence.

A system installed nine years ago at their 120-acre property on South Mountain Road has prevented 325,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere, effectively reducing the carbon footprint of their home. That tally is calculated by the system itself, via digital readout, tracking the energy generated by the ground-mounted solar array at their home. Three Tesla Powerwalls are charged by the panels and provide back-up electricity. 

The Merkords purchased their property in 1996 to provide a home for the various exotic animals they cared for and for the wildlife education that took place through visits to see the Siberian tiger, black bear and wolves.  

“One of the things when you have these kinds of animals is that you can never go anywhere,” said Ron Merkord. “You can’t find a babysitter for a big cat. So we decided that as the animals naturally died, we wouldn’t be getting any more so that we could travel and do things with our son.”

“I’ve always been really interested in solar, photovoltaic technology,” Merkord continued. “I remember when I was a kid and mowing lawns just so I could earn money,” to get the newest product from Edmund Scientific, a company selling science and technology gadgets and products for all ages. “It’s been a long term interest of mine.” Merkord graduated from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and worked for ARCO Solar “doing photovoltaic design and development.” Today he repairs and sells lasers.

What triggered the move to solar power on his property was the purchase of electric vehicles. First it was the 2011 Chevy Volt, “their early plug-in hybrid… we absolutely loved it.” But the Merkords quickly realized that it does take a lot of electricity to charge a car, especially with a regular commute. “To keep the [Southern California] Edison {SCE] rates down, we put in solar to offset that.” 

In 2012 they got a second Chevy Volt and installed a large solar array. Solar panels arranged on two large rectangles sit on a west-sloping hillside next to their house. “It’s about 15 kilowatts, which is bigger than what we could fit on the rooftop. It’s a ground-mounted system beside the house.” He calculated the array was enough to charge two electric vehicles for all of their driving, “and run the house.”

“We’ve been on solar now for nine years; it’s completely paid for itself already. We love it.” 

Merkord is pragmatic about the fact that their personal solar choices “aren’t going to change things,” acknowledging that climate change “is a worldwide problem…but it makes a moral statement. We talk to a lot of people about it. We spread the word and maybe affect the world a little bit that way.” 

Today they have two Tesla vehicles, a couple of electric ATVs used on the ranch and a cadre of all-electric yard tools, lawn mowers and chainsaws, powered by the sun.

Today solar systems are not factored in for property tax assessment purposes. In 2012, however, there were concerns that the Merkords solar array would affect assessed property values. A lease allowed them to avoid the tax liability. “Officially we are leasing the solar, but it’s already been paid off for the next 25 years,” Merkord explained. 

Relying largely on solar had some drawbacks early on.

“The only hiccup is when Edison would go down, it also shut down power to the house,” Merkord said, as the SCE system was needed to operate the converters. “This became a serious problem with the Public Safety Power Shut Offs [PSPO] that became quite common after the fire lawsuits . . . It got so bad, one month where out of 30 days, we had no power for at least part of the day for 23 days. We were trying to live off little batteries and generators.” 

To solve this problem they installed three Tesla Powerwalls, at a cost of $27,000. The Powerwalls charge directly off the solar panels and provide a battery backup. 

Three Tesla Powerwalls with the convertors and other equipment managing the Merkord’s solar and battery microgrid at their home in Bardsdale. April 14, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

“We have loved them. Every time the power shuts off, we have no problem. Totally seamless, we don’t even notice it. They are charged, they stay charged.” 

Under normal usage, the Merkords use solar during the day and charge up the Powerwalls, which they rely on at night rather than using the SCE electric system. Merkord has linked the solar and battery system to his smartphone, which receives reports on battery levels, usage levels and charges. “How we use them also changes depending on the weather.” 

When they know there is going to be a wind event and a PSPO is likely, they will set the system to keep the batteries fully charged at 100%. 

Merkord said that the solar array and three Powerwalls generate enough energy to run everything, including the air conditioning and all appliances. “The only thing we might cut back on is charging the cars.” If they had to drive a lot during the PSPOs, they either don’t charge both cars at the same time, or only partially charge them.

Very rarely there will be a brief dimming of the lights when the system switches over from solar to battery sourced. Otherwise the only way they even know SCE has shut off power is through the smartphone app. 

“Our system runs everything, there is no change in lifestyle when Edison goes down.” 

The Merkord’s ground mounted solar array. April 14, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

With the Powerwalls, even a major fire won’t cut the Merkords’ power. “Since we’ve had the property three fires have burned through the ranch . . . even if . . . a fire burns all the lines along South Mountain Road, we won’t even notice it.” 

Only their main water pump, on a well shared with a neighboring property owner, relies solely on power from SCE. They do have water storage, enough to “go for weeks at a time just on what we have stored.” But Merkord admitted that if the power goes down for a long period of time, they would have an issue with their water supply.  He is considering switching the well pump to something smaller that would be run off the solar system. 

Another future plan is to move away from propane for heat and hot water. “It uses a very small amount of propane. The house is highly insulated so even on really cold mornings we don’t use the heater much.” They are looking at options for an electric hot water heater that will run off of the panels. 

“We recently replaced the propane stove and oven, for induction electric. So we’ve gotten away from using gas for cooking. In the next few years, ideally, we will switch the [water heater and heater] to electric, and won’t even need the propane.” 

For the Merkords, “moving to electric” came from a desire to “do something about climate change. My wife and I both view it as the most serious problem facing humanity. We have a son, the world is going to be severely affected by climate change. We have a moral obligation…to move things in the right direction.” 

  1. Approaches to Zero Net Energy Cost Effectiveness in New Homes, April 2021, Energy Research and Development Division, California Energy Commission, Gov. Gavin Newsom. ww2.energy.ca.gov/2021publications/CEC-500-2021-025/CEC-500-2021-025.pdf 
  1. California Energy Commission’s 2018 Integrated Energy Policy Report www.energy.ca.gov/data-reports/reports/integrated-energy-policy-report 
  1. Decision modifying the energy efficiency three-prong test related to fuel substitution, California Public Utilities Commission, Aug. 1, 2019. https://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/PublishedDocs/Published/G000/M310/K159/310159146.PDF