By Jill Tunick. With the Golden State still prey to blackouts and sky-high electricity prices, photovoltaic panels are popping up in communities by Shea Homes, Pardee Homes, Centex, and U.S. Home. Irvine, Calif.-based Standard Pacific is the latest production builder to break ground on a new-home community in San Diego that allows buyers to generate their own solar-electric power and spin back their electric meters.

Early this year, the builder signed an agreement with AstroPower, a Dover, Del.-based manufacturer of solar electric equipment, to supply the 44 homes in its Maravu community with AstroPower's SunLine system. The equipment includes photovoltaic panels and devices called inverters, which convert solar energy into electricity.

Why San Diego?

"We were the first area to experience the effects of deregulation," says Todd Palmaer, president of Standard Pacific's San Diego division. He ticks off the soaring electricity prices, rolling blackouts, and simmering hysteria that swept California a little over a year ago.

From the air, Maravu would be easy to pick out, given the banks of panels shining from the roofs of each of its two- and three-story homes in Encinitas, a San Diego suburb.

"By doing it standard, we've taken that decision away from the homeowner," says Palmaer. That's what sets the community apart from others in the area. Pardee, Centex, and other San Diego builders offer solar-electric power equipment as an option. At Maravu, it comes with the house.

'70s revisited

Standard Pacific's market research revealed that the California energy crisis bred a new type of home buyer; an environmentally conscious sort who's more determined than ever to help save the planet's resources and not get shafted by the electric company.

Photo: Bruce T. Brown/Getty Images/Stone

To lure that elite market, Maravu's $800,000 to $1.1 million homes feature radiant-barrier roof sheathing; dual-glazed, low-E windows; high-efficiency, tankless hot water heaters; and airtight HVAC systems. And the power-generation equipment, of course. The homes sit on Q-acre lots. Now in the first phase of production, the community will be fully built-out in spring or summer 2003. Models opened in early March, and traffic has been steady.

"They've been very interested in the [solar-electric power] systems and feel it's a great standard feature that adds value to the home along with all the other energy-saving features," says Alan Willingham, Standard Pacific's vice president of purchasing.

The builder has been publicizing the community with advertisements, direct-mail pieces, and brochures. At the models, it hands out pamphlets that detail each of the homes' energy-saving items. The SunLine System, for example, produces 250 to 300 kilowatts per hour of electricity a month. Power bill savings aren't guaranteed because they're predicated on individual consumption. However, the supplemental power source is projected to save Maravu buyers approximately $70 on their monthly electric bills, according to AstroPower.

Such features don't come cheap, of course. Bob Ruggio, manager of the AstroPower's builder program, says the "customer-realized" cost of the SunLine system is $7,000 to $8,000 per home. Standard Pacific's hard costs are $76 a square foot. That's without the panels, which add about $3.50 per square foot to the building costs.

Installing the systems makes the builder eligible for state rebates of nearly $6,500 per house.

Training trades

The agreement with AstroPower yields other benefits, too. Under its builder program, AstroPower trained Standard Pacific's front-line employees on site to educate buyers on photovoltaics and sell them on the SunLine System's features. The manufacturer also trained the builder's roofers to install the panels and its electricians to install the inverters.

Standard Pacific didn't have to change its construction methods much to incorporate the solar-electric equipment. But it did have to add some time to its roofing schedule to get the panel placement just right.

"Some homes might have panels on different parts of their roofs," Palmaer explains. "You need to have flexible [local zoning] that will allow you to do that. We're fortunate that we have large lots so we could tweak placement and orient the panels correctly."

The extra effort is worth it. Standard Pacific and AstroPower agree that designing solar-electric power equipment standard into homes helps differentiate the builder in a competitive market and industry. Besides the obvious benefits to homeowners, builders are realizing that "being environmentally aware builds their brand and helps them interact with the community where they're building," says Howard Wenger, AstroPower's vice president of North American business. "That's a critical element in construction."

In turn, partnering with Standard Pacific yields valuable visibility for AstroPower. "It positions us as working with a national home builder, particularly one in the Builder 100," says Ruggio. "We find that key in expanding the program to other builders."

As supplier to the San Diego communities built by Pardee, U.S. Home, Shea, and Centex, AstroPower nurses a growing belief that the technology will become standard in all new-home communities in energy-sensitive areas. Builders, meanwhile, are monitoring consumer interest in alternative energy sources while checking out what other builders are doing.

"Three years ago, if you were to ask me: 'Are builders innovative?' I would have said no," says Wenger. "I still don't think they're on the leading edge, but they do adopt innovation. They track what's out there."

Standard Pacific doesn't have any future solar-power communities planned at this point--it's waiting to see how Maravu fares. But it does hope other builders follow its example in designing homes standard with solar-electric power generation equipment.

"We wanted to be a leader to start some momentum," says Palmaer. "If more builders incorporate it, it will be good for everyone.

Jill Tunick is based in Arlington, Va.

BIG BUILDER Magazine, April 2002