UC Davis West Village finds zero energy goal elusive

UC Davis West Village’s ambitious goal to produce all of the energy it consumes is being thwarted by the energy consumption habits of student occupants who might not realize how much electricity their laptops and mini refrigerators consume.

The sustainability-focused student housing community generated 82 percent of its own electricity for 2013-14 through solar panels, down from 87 percent the year before, according to a report released Wednesday by the university.

Data for 2014-15 are not yet available. West Village opened four years ago.

Developer and owner Carmel Partners said the 2,000 student residents had no incentive to conserve since utilities are included in the monthly rent, which ranges from $880 to $1,850.

We’re constantly educating about how to use the air conditioning or run a load of laundry appropriately. We also ask them avoid space heaters and mini fridges.

Stephanie Martling, Carmel vice president of asset management, on efforts to teach West Village student residents to conserve energy

“When residents are not responsible for paying, they are less likely to be conscious about how much they are using,” said Stephanie Martling, vice president of asset management for San Francisco-based Carmel.

Residents may soon be required to pay for electricity based on usage. Last year, a conservation education effort was started to help the project reach its “zero-net energy” goal, said Martling.

“Sometimes we notice a particular unit might be 10 times higher than its neighbor,” Martling said. “Often times, these residents don’t even know they are using as much electricity because this is their first apartment.”

Billed as the largest planned zero-net energy community in the nation, the $300 million development received accolades from politicians and environmentalists, with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom at the time calling it “a demonstration of California’s excellence in sustainability.”

The project also received plenty of research dollars and taxpayer money, including $17 million from UC Davis and $2.5 million from the California Energy Commission.

When it opened, analysts had hoped West Village would pave the way for a new generation of zero-net energy buildings.

Gerry Braun, an independent energy consultant based in Davis, said the latest data “undercuts those of us who say this is economically feasible.”

“The message from UC Davis is, ‘This is really tough; we’re working on it.’ You can’t use West Village as a successful demonstration to motivate others,” Braun said.

The decrease in energy efficiency was expected, however, because the property attracted more commercial tenants, said Sid England, assistant vice chancellor of sustainability. Researchers forecast electricity usage based on models from a family apartment, rather than a unit with four independent students.

“It’s not the same rhythm as a family,” England said, noting that students tend to operate their own electronic devices and appliances.

The process to educate residents is constant due to the high turnover associated with student housing.

“We have about 1,000-1,500 residents coming in every year,” Martling said. “It’s really about teaching them to be responsible energy users.”

Despite the hurdles, UC Davis still has big goals for West Village. Construction will begin on single-family homes in late 2016, after being delayed because of the recession.

Asked about a time line for achieving zero-net energy, England said, “Our goal is to get there by buildout, a few years into the future.”

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang