Imagine No Electricity Bills: The Rise of ‘Net-Zero’ Homes

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If done properly, a smartly built green home featuring solar power, energy-efficient appliances, and proper insulation can result in the owner facing monthly electricity bills amounting to $0, or thereabouts. Now, one homebuilder is making such “net-zero” features standard in several communities around the U.S.

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The builder is Shea Homes, and its environmentally friendly designs aren’t being promoted to young, green-minded Gen X and Gen Y buyers but to older Baby Boomers who have the other sort of green in mind—money. According to the Arizona Republic, the SheaXero concept, as it’s called, which promises owners will pay nothing or nearly nothing in electricity bills, is being made standard in all Shear Homes Active Lifestyle and Trilogy Communities—11 communities in Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, and beyond that cater specifically to boomers and other retirees.

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Shea first began offering “net-zero” homes in 1999 in San Diego, and now all homes in its “Active Lifestyle” communities, which start at $180,000, will come equipped with solar units designed to replace the home’s normal electricity needs. Shea’s sales pitch promises:

Over the course of a year, depending on where you live, you could save thousands of dollars. And with the cost of electricity rising, your savings could be substantially greater in the future.

The Republic story, which notes that several other builders are also offering net-zero homes in Arizona and elsewhere, quotes at length Rick Andreen, president of Shea Homes Active Lifestyle Communities, who admits that even in green-designed properties, homeowners must still pay some menial monthly electricity bills. Depending on the owner’s lifestyle, the electricity bill could wind up not being cheap at all:

“If a person puts in an overly large swimming pool and fountain, or runs an industrial workshop in their garage, guess what, they will not be a net-zero house,” Andreen said. “And we can’t get rid of the (utilities’) basic service charges. Utility companies need to make money. They are still providing power lines and service at night when we can’t produce energy.”

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An owner in Arizona will probably pay a minimum of $8.55 per month, or a bit over $100 a year. For homeowners accustomed to paying $50 or $100 per month for electricity, though, this represents a huge annual savings.

It’s all relative, though: As with hybrid and electric cars, owners who buy net-zero homes pay a premium upfront, with the idea that they’ll save money down the line. Whether you actually wind up saving in the long run depends on a number of factors, including the price of gas (or electricity) during the course of ownership, and how you drive (or live).

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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