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Largest Net Zero Community Opens In Davis

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, November 17, 2011


Most of us didn't have college days like this. In the recreation center at West Village in Davis  Soaring ceilings and windows bath the space with natural light.  A couple of the eight hundred students who now live here are playing pool.

Outside there is the beach volleyball court and a resort like solar pool.  Of course those are just the amenities, what makes this three hundred million dollar development unique is this is the largest zero net energy project in the country. That means West Village, where eventually three thousand people including faculty and their families will live, plans to generate all the electricity it needs from the sun.

Touring the recreation center with UC Davis's Bob Segar, who has been working on this project  for fifteen years, you start to get a feel for some of the small things that make such an ambitious goal possible. Things like a device which creates a natural cooling effect.

SEGAR: "In this building just above us is a wind chimney. It's the tallest part of the building and it has vents on both sides that can be opened. So you open down  low and the air comes in down low. You open up high and that air gets pulled out through the building and out the wind chimney."

JOE RUBIN: "If I'm thinking about a project like this, net zero three hundred million dollars. I'm imagining wind mills and solar panels everywhere. And I do see them, but they are kind of tucked away."

BOB SEGAR  "And that was very intentional. What we tried to do was completely integrate the energy strategy into the fabric of the and not have to set aside big tracks of land to do separate energy strategies The south east and west of all these buildings roofs are covered with solar."

Also with us on the tour is Tani Elliot.  Elliot was a grad student in urban planning at U.C  Davis. Now she  works for Carmel Partners the private developer which teamed up with the university to build West Village.  

ELLIOT:  "So we're on the observation deck we are about three stories up. One of our parking lots is covered with solar panels, so we are seeing two rows of solar panels. And what is interesting about placing these solar panels in the parking is that we had to do some pretty intensive shade studies to see which parking lots get shaded by the buildings adjacent to them and which ones do not."

Even with all those solar cells, West Village is on the electric grid. During winter rains it will have to tap into outside power. All those central valley sunny days when the complex should produce more energy than it needs, are predicted to balance that deficit out.

Bob Segar says that actually solar power is the last thing you think about when shooting for net zero status. The first thing is that your whole mindset has to be different when it comes to planning.  

SEGAR: If you lay out a community with long east west streets you get good access to the sun. If you curve around  every neighborhood street half of those buildings are going to have the wrong orientation to the sun . That is simple and it's free and it's kind of where you start.

We go inside to four bedroom apartment. It feels hip, modern and light. But  I wonder how do you keep these young people from leaving the air conditioner on sixty when they are in class, or their computers on all day?

SEGAR: "There is no green police. But there are a couple of incentives built in. One is that piece of equipment that you see down there is what you would call a smart power strip. So for your computer and printer set up that you might leave on all day, once you plug in your equipment that becomes data that you can manage on a smart phone display. Those of us my age were probably not smart enough to live here, but a student will move in and  grab onto that and program their smart phone."

Turning off your computer remotely might seem like a small thing.  But in order to achieve net zero status, conserving energy is crucial. So the little things, like cutting off phantom could actually make the difference when it comes to maintaining net zero status

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