No Monthly Energy Bills

An experiment in energy efficiency breaks new ground in New Brunswick.

It is a frigid winter day in Bathurst, NB, but inside the EcoPlusHome, the Kenny family is cozy and warm. And thanks to an integrated component system that uses renewable energy technologies like solar thermal, photovoltaic and geothermal, their power bill for the month will be about $19.

But that's in winter. Unlike the other homes in the Squire Green subdivision, the EcoPlusHome is designed to be net zero, which means that under the right conditions, on a year-round basis it will place no demands on the power grid. In fact, it could even go beyond net zero to energy positive - generating more electricity than it uses.

For the past year, Bryan Kenny, his wife, Renee, and their four children have lived in one of the most innovative demonstration homes in North America. Their role in this eco-experiment is to test the efficiency and comfort of alternative energy technologies in a real-life environment, and to help answer a very important question: how much fossil energy is really required for the daily life of an average family?

"It is finally possible to live in a house without consuming fossil fuels," says Axel Lerche, a native of Germany who immigrated to New Brunswick in 2004. President of a marketing company called Tight Lines Productions Ltd., Lerche is the real energy behind the EcoPlusHome project. Ambitious and hardworking, his goal is to save the planet - one house at a time.

"Everyone thinks green these days," he says. "People know it's important and they want to do the right thing, but it's usually too complicated. When I built my house here a few years ago, it was difficult to find information about new, eco-friendly technologies for construction."

Recognizing a need for a more co-ordinated, user-friendly package, Lerche put together a proposal and presented it to several large, German corporations. When Bosch, a maker of household appliances, responded, he breathed a sigh of relief. "They're a huge multinational company with tremendous strength in the field of alternative technologies," he says.

"They were interested in testing their products in North America, and what better place than Bathurst, where the temperatures range from +35°C in the summer to -35°C in the winter? If alternative energy technologies will work here, they will work almost anywhere."

With Bosch on board, Lerche assembled a team of players that includes the New Brunswick modular house company, Maple Leaf Homes, construction company, Bird Stairs, Roy Consultants and Kohler Windows. Next, he enlisted support from the Province of New Brunswick, the city of Bathurst, the New Brunswick Community College and Efficiency New Brunswick, a provincial government agency that promotes energy efficiency.

"Alternative technologies have been used before in Atlantic Canada," says Scott Tidd, Technical Project manager for the EcoPlusHome, "but rarely as a complete system. We took everything from site selection, orientation of the house, construction materials and technical systems and looked at it as a whole. The architects, the engineers and the construction team all worked together."

Maple Leaf Homes built the 2,200 square-foot modular home in their Fredericton factory and delivered it to the Bathurst subdivision where it was assembled in one day like four giant Lego blocks.

"When the Kenny family's neighbours went to work that morning there was no house beside them," says Scott Tidd. "When they arrived home from work, it was there."

Within the next two weeks, Bosch combined and integrated a full line of energy technologies that includes everything from the Energy Star coffee maker and dishwasher to the 52 solar panels that make the house a provincial leader for the number of solar cells on a single residence. With solar thermal for domestic hot water, photovoltaic for electricity and a geothermal heat pump for heating and cooling, the EcoPlusHome has the potential to generate as much energy as it consumes. Any additional energy transfers to the power grid, until it is needed - a cost effective system called net metering.

As a living laboratory, and one of the first potentially net zero homes in North America, the EcoPlusHome has a real-time system for monitoring and displaying data related to its energy consumption. Each technical component is programmed to provide regular feedback that allows the homeowner a complete overview of the systems in place. "The thing to remember is that it's not just a demonstration house," says Tidd. "It's the home of a real family."

The Kenny family took up residence in December 2009. Even before the photovoltaic system was connected, Bryan Kenny noticed a dramatic decrease in his family's domestic consumption of energy. He attributed the initial drop to the airtight building envelope, ICF basement and high-efficiency Bosch appliances.

Once the technical systems were operational, the real savings were quickly apparent. "In the first part of April we produced 89 kilowatt hours in one day," says Scott Tidd. That figure was unusually high, but on average the EcoPlusHome produces about 42.5 kW-h each day. "Most households use between 10,000 and 14,000 kW-h per year," says Tidd. "In one year we can produce 18,000."

In May 2010 an unprecedented EnerGuide rating of 96 out of 100 earned the EcoPlusHome the Premier's prestigious Energy Efficiency Award for a new residential home. According to Tidd, much of the credit goes to the theory of thermodynamics, a complicated matter that he distills quite handily.

"In the winter, you take the heat from the ground and you put it in the house; in the summer you take the heat from the house and you put it in the ground. There's no better way to heat and cool."

In addition to saving the planet, Lerche's goal is to build affordable green, prefab home communities in partnership with the Bosch group and select Canadian construction companies. If things go as planned, there will soon be up to 240 EcoPlusHomes in Moncton and up to 120 townhomes in Fredericton.

Axel Lerche appreciates that this is new territory, especially in Atlantic Canada. "We're taking a journey into the future of residential construction," he says, "and everyone is invited to come along."

For Bryan Kenny and his family, this particular journey is about to end. They have lived in the EcoPlusHome for a year and fulfilled their role as an average family. "We're looking forward to returning to the privacy of our own home," says Kenny, "but we have no regrets. Living in a bubble has been interesting, and it has made us all more aware of ways to go green. Any way you look at it, this project has been a success."