Geothermal is part of net-zero energy homes in New Lenox subdivision

A newly formed company thinks the beacon that will attract homebuyers to its patch of dirt in New Lenox isn’t a clubhouse or walking paths, the extras that once drew attention to new subdivisions, but 30-foot-tall vertical-axis wind turbines. Prairie Ridge Estates, as envisioned by local developers Jim and Phil Regan, could just possibly become the nation’s largest net-zero energy subdivision, filled with homes that produce as much energy as they use during a year.  But selling 132 lots of really green housing also could prove a formidable task for Energy Smart Home Builders, and not just because homebuilding has screeched to a halt.

Another hurdle is the education required for buyers, lenders, appraisers and even village building inspectors to make the project successful. And there is the nearby competition to contend with — traditionally built homes selling for less than $300,000, as well as some 800 other vacant lots in New Lenox waiting for homes. In short, the buyers who invest in Prairie Ridge’s homes, which will start in the high $400,000s, will need to be energy pioneers. Jim Regan, Energy Smart’s president, not only acknowledges the challenges but embraces them after doing his own homework. “This is the way the world should build,” said Regan, sitting near the first of what will be up to 66 wind turbines at the subdivision. “We can build a home that renews itself.” From the street, the homes will largely look like the other brick-clad homes mandated in New Lenox. To receive the village’s approval, Energy Smart agreed to attach photovoltaic solar panels only to the rear of the home, which means 30 to 40 homes will not have them since they need a south-facing exposure. Those homes will have wind turbines quietly operating in their yards, and other properties will have both energy-producing devices.

Inside each home, a closed loop geothermal heating and cooling system will use the earth’s stable temperature to maintain air comfort. Energy produced by the solar panels and turbines will power the home, including the Energy Star appliances and light-emitting diode lighting. A monitoring station will track energy use. Customers will be credited for excess energy generated but not used, with the idea that it will compensate for times when the home has to rely on traditional power sources. Potential detractors from the net-zero labeling include optional fireplaces, which draw heat out of a home, and gas stoves rather than electric ones. The homeowner’s commitment to a green philosophy is also a question mark, starting with daily commuting practices: Anyone driving 80 miles round-trip to Chicago in a SUV probably loses the right to claim a green lifestyle. “It’s hard to say how all those homes are going to turn out because the energy (savings) really depends on the people living in the home,” said Jason LaFleur, project manager at the Alliance for Environmental Sustainability. “They have the capability to be net zero. If they keep the lights on and the computers running, it won’t be net zero.” Cutting-edge, energy-efficient homes weren’t always the plan for the site. The Regans purchased the parcel five years ago and presold lots to traditional builders. When the housing bust quashed home-construction financing, the Regans were unable to sell the lots. A trip to a building trade show opened their eyes to green building techniques.

By Mary Ellen Podmolik

Chicago Tribune, August 3, 2011