Randy Pench / rpench@sacbee.com

A bicycle rider passes a tower with solar panels on it at the UC Davis West Village, the nation's largest planned zero-net energy community.

Editorial: UC Davis needs to get it right with West Village

Published: Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A
Last Modified: Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 - 6:15 am

The University of California, Davis, aimed high with West Village, seeking to create the largest zero-net-energy-use residential community in the country.

The first step was reducing energy demand through building design. The second was offsetting any energy consumption through on-site solar energy generation.

As the first big zero-net energy use project in the United States, and one of the largest in the world, measuring actual energy consumption and offsetting generation is important – and uncharted territory. How UC Davis and its partners do this will set the bar for future large-scale developments across the country.

The project's first report goes to the U.S. Department of Energy in a month, tracking energy use and offsetting solar energy production from March through September 2012. That goes through a rigorous peer review process, with revisions (including year-end data as they become available).

The final report will be published by the Energy Department in early summer.

To date, West Village has built two apartment complexes for nearly 1,500 students, including ground-floor commercial space – the Viridian Apartments (192 residents) and the Ramble Apartments (1,284 residents). The first units opened in August 2011.

Two pieces need to be measured:

• Energy efficiency: Working with researchers, developers incorporated efficiency elements in building design.

The buildings are oriented east to west and include roof overhangs and window sunshades to minimize heat gain in summer and maximize heat gain in winter – reducing use of heaters and air conditioners. They include solar-reflective roofing, radiant-barrier roof sheathing and added insulation to reduce heat flow through ceiling and walls.

Each unit has ceiling fans in living room and bedrooms, large windows for light and ventilation, and high-efficiency light fixtures, washers and dryers, air conditioning and heating systems.

The goal was to use design elements to reduce energy consumption by 50 percent to 60 percent over traditional apartments.

Using computer modeling, researchers at Davis Energy set a baseline: What would energy use be if the buildings had been built merely to code, without ultra-efficient design elements?

They are now sifting through data provided by PG&E to see if the building elements and resident conservation efforts are reducing energy as anticipated.

• Solar generation: The buildings include rooftop and parking lot canopy solar panels to offset energy consumption by residents.

Davis Energy researchers have collected daily solar generation data from Sun Power, so they will be able to separate energy consumption from energy production. In a preliminary look at trends, not yet ready for release, they expect the two apartment complexes to be at zero-net energy use by year's end.

A third complex, the Solstice Apartments (504 residents), is under construction, with students expected to move in this fall. That, too, is expected to have zero-net energy use.

Originally, West Village's first phase was supposed to include 343 zero-net energy use single-family homes and town houses priced below market cost for faculty and staff. The housing market crash delayed that. Homes will be built only when pre-sold, with annual appreciation capped to keep homes affordable for future generations of faculty and staff.

Unlike the apartments, those homes would use natural gas, so on the horizon is a waste-to-energy biodigester to offset energy consumption.

With technology invented by a UC Davis professor and licensed to Clean World Partners, a Sacramento-based startup, the biodigester will convert table scraps from campus dormitories, manure from the campus dairy and plant waste from agricultural research fields into electricity.

Construction starts this spring, with operations beginning this fall. The university hopes the biodigester will eliminate the need to send waste to landfills by 2020.

West Village is very much a work in progress and we don't yet know whether it is meeting ambitious zero-net energy use goals. But we'll be watching as the peer-reviewed report comes out.

This university-developer-utility partnership to reduce energy consumption is worth pursuing.

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