An ambitious Valley developer is putting his money where his ideals are with plans for an innovative townhome project he hopes will run almost entirely on solar energy. Industry leaders are hoping the development — likely the first of its kind in Arizona — will spur more builders to jump into the solar game.
Global warming concerns are growing, and energy prices are rising, Catalyst Communities founder Chad Gifford said. Meanwhile, Arizona is second only to Perth, Australia, in its ability to capture solar energy, he said.
“It just seems like the fair and right thing to do in the Valley,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we want to harness that energy when it’s free.”
Each of the 36 townhomes in Gifford’s Phoenix project, called Aura at Camelback, will have a rooftop solar photovoltaic system, which converts sunlight into electricity.
The builder is so certain the solar units will meet most, if not all, of the homes’ energy needs, he’s picking up the tab for the owners’ electricity bills for the first five years.
But whether Aura’s solar units will be large enough for the task is unclear.
‘NO ONE HAS TRIED’
Aura is the first of its kind that Michael Neary, who heads up the Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association, has seen.
Up until now, most residential solar energy projects in Arizona have centered around single-family homes, he said.
Catalyst not only is applying the technology to a multifamily development but is attempting to provide 100 percent of each home’s power needs with solar units.
“In the past, no one has tried to do that,” Neary said.
It’s a daunting task that most developers have avoided. The cost has scared many builders away, Neary said.
Energy prices are climbing, but the cost of solar technology is dropping, said Mike Eisele, president of Valley-based solar power provider Agenera, which is consulting with Catalyst on the systems for Aura.
“The trends are clearly in our favor,” Eisele said.
Catalyst is aiming for one of the top certifications from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, national rating system for “green” buildings.
Meeting the stringent LEED guidelines can add an extra 2 percent to 3 percent to the cost of construction. Adding solar probably tacks on another 1½ percent, Eisele said.
TAKING A RISK
Gifford is partly banking on the design to meet his goals because a LEED home is about 40 percent more energy efficient than what’s typical.
He’s also counting on “eco-friendly” buyers who use energy sparingly.
With Catalyst’s guarantee, homeowners will receive a credit for five years of electricity costs when they purchase a home.
If they produce more energy than they use, “then they just pocket the money,” Gifford said. If they go over, the developer will pay the difference at the end of the five year-period.
Each townhome will have a 4-kilowatt solar unit and be connected to Salt River Project’s grid to provide electricity at night. In theory, the solar system will produce excess power during sunny days to offset the nighttime use.
If a solar customer produces more power than he uses at any given time, his next bill will be credited, said Lori Singleton, SRP’s manager of sustainability initiatives and technologies.
But most customers with solar aren’t able to generate more power than they use because their systems aren’t large enough, Singleton said.
Of SRP’s roughly 300 solar customers, only 10 or 15 receive credits for excess electricity produced. Those people typically have large systems, small homes and are conservative with their use, she said.
A larger 10-kilowatt system would be suited for homes ranging in size from 3,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet, Singleton said.
Aura’s homes with the 4-kilowatt systems will run from roughly 2,470 square feet to more than 3,100 square feet.
Gifford is confident, however, that with more efficiently designed homes, the right-sized systems and conservative users, the solar units will produce between 75 percent and 100 percent of needed electricity.
SHOW OF CONFIDENCE
B.J. Katz and her husband stumbled upon Gifford’s project about a month ago.
The glass artist from Gilbert was drawn to the project’s “green” building philosophy and its handicap accessibility for her elderly parents.
It’s consonant with their ideals, said Katz, one of at least seven buyers who has reserved a home since Aura’s sales office opened Jan. 25. Hopefully, it will inspire other builders to get into solar, she said.
“It’s a wonderful show of confidence in what he’s doing,” she said.
It’s difficult to estimate the amount of energy a home will produce because every owner has a different lifestyle, said Leah Bushman with Mesa-based ETA Engineering, which works on solar projects.
Some people fall asleep with their televisions on, while others are cautious about turning off lights, Bushman said.
But with a solar system, “you become more energy conscious,” she said. “You don’t want to pay anything to the utilities.”
GET IN THE GAME
As Aura gets ready to break ground in the spring, industry leaders are watching.
It’s going to become increasingly vital for builders to integrate solar into homes, Arizona Corporation Commissioner Kris Mayes said.
State renewable energy standards will eventually require Arizona Public Service to provide solar incentives for thousands of homeowners, Mayes said.
“To meet those ambitious goals, we need developers to get in the game,” she said.
The Catalyst Communities project is on the leading edge of solar projects in Arizona, and hopefully it will spread to the big builders, Mayes said.
“Solar should be an option for new homeowners in the same way granite countertops are,” she said.
Gifford estimates Aura, located on the southwest corner of 25th Street and Campbell Avenue in Phoenix, will take up to 18 months to build. The homes will have elevators and range in price from $900,000 to $1.3 million.
If successful, he hopes to expand the Aura brand to more cities such as Tempe and Scottsdale, and offer a broader price range.
“People really are looking for something different,” he said.