Thanks to a combination of federal and state tax credits for homeowners, reduced costs and a broader array of products to choose from, solar panels are appearing on a growing number of homes in the Portland metro area.
Energy Trust of Oregon's 2016 annual report, released in April, states that last year set a record for the installation of standard solar capacity and generation, with the nonprofit organization providing support for some 1,200 customer-owned residential solar systems.
Most homeowners today are paying between $2.87 and $3.85 per watt to install solar, and the average gross cost of solar panels before tax credits is $16,800. After tax credits the average range is $10,045 to $13,475, a 9 percent drop from last year, and solar panel system costs are continuing to fall, according to EnergySage, a partner of the national nonprofit research and education organization The Solar Foundation.
While the news is great for homeowners, several area home builders see solar panels as a small component of meeting larger energy-efficiency goals when it comes to new construction. Their sights are set on more comprehensive, sustainable development standards encompassed by the Energy Performance Score (EPS), Passive House and net zero energy home guidelines.
In 2016, 38 percent of all newly built homes in Energy Trust's territory were rated with EPS, which incorporates energy-efficient HVAC, appliances and lighting, among other elements that reduce energy costs and carbon footprint. The average EPS home is built 20 percent above code and saves homebuyers $500 a year in energy costs compared to similar sized homes, according to Energy Trust.
Citing Oregon's thriving construction market, its growing population and historically low multifamily vacancy rates, Energy Trust noted that energy-efficient new construction and major renovations at multifamily buildings have been steadily increasing over the last five years.
Portland's Green Hammer was among the first to move beyond solar panels in the green building movement and, by 2009, had built five of the first LEED-Platinum homes in the country. As of this year, its team of architects and builders have constructed nearly 50 homes that have received LEED Platinum and Passive House certifications, among other ecofriendly designations.
Passive House standards call for solar gain that is managed to use the sun's energy for heat during cool seasons and to minimize overheating during warmer months. It also utilizes high-performance windows and doors; an airtight building envelope and continuous insulation throughout the envelope; and a balanced heat- and moisture-recovery ventilation, according to the Passive House Institute U.S.
Green Hammer has taken the concept beyond single-family homes and has integrated it into multifamily projects such as Orchards at Orenco. Green Hammer served as Passive House consultants for the 57-unit affordable housing building in Hillsboro, which was completed in June 2015.
Its Ankeny Row project, consisting of five townhomes and a commons building, incorporated net zero energy design and construction standards through the Earth Advantage Platinum Zero-Energy program. Last year, the age-in-place community produced nearly 20 percent more electricity than it consumed with a rooftop solar system, according to Green Hammer.
Portland's Hammer & Hand, another local leader in Passive House design and construction, has received multiple awards for recent residential projects that incorporate solar panels to ensure the homes generate as much or more energy than they use each year.
Among them, Pumpkin Ridge Passive House in North Plains, completed in 2013 and a certified zero energy home. It received a 2015 Housing Innovation Award from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Also in 2015, Karuna House in Newberg earned Hammer & Hand a first-place award in the Passive House Institute U.S.'s inaugural Passive Projects Competition. Completed in 2013, the net positive energy home earned the top prize in the institute's single-family category and a design award from the American Institute of Architects Portland chapter, among multiple other honors.
Solar panels may see an even bigger surge in new home construction if Oregon follows California's lead. Our neighbor to the south recently updated its zero energy requirements and in January began offering a compliance credit for solar power to encourage the construction of homes that generate a large portion of the energy they use, especially during peak hours.
SunPower Corp., a California-based supplier of solar panel systems for home builders, said it's estimated that under the new Title 24 regulations at least half of all new, single-family homes built in the state will use solar power. By 2020, the majority of new, single-family homes in California will be solar powered.