Author: Carlos Villacis
Usually wearing a hat and always sporting an impressive beard, Scott Sklar spends a few days a month giving tours of his two zero-energy buildings in Arlington, Virginia. His house does not take any energy from the grid, and pulls this off through the use of various renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. Sklar is basically practicing what he preaches, as an Adjunct Professor of sustainable energy at The George Washington University, and as the founder of The Stella Group, Ltd., a clean energy consultancy that specializes in blending clean, distributed energy technologies for private and public-sector clients, including the U.S. military. He has 40 years of experience in the clean energy field, and is president of the Sustainable Energy Coalition, which was founded with the help of EESI. He has worked in all seven continents, and is proud to share his knowledge, whether it is in the classroom, or in his own backyard.
Sklar’s Sears Catalog home was purchased in 1984, and at the time used 5.2 kilowatts (kW) of energy per year. He then proceeded to add a second story to the house, which in most cases would increase the home’s energy use. However, Sklar installed R38 insulation, which was much higher than the average of R8-11 at the time (the higher the R-level, the better; the current average is 15-22). He used argon-filled low-e coated double pane windows which offer better insulation and reducing heat gain in the summer. Sklar also switched his light bulbs to compact fluorescents, which have now been replaced by dimmable LEDs. As for appliances, Sklar uses Energy-Star products whenever possible. Through these efficiency measures, the two-story building now uses only 3.2 kW of energy per year.
Sklar emphasizes the importance of efficiency, and how saving energy is the cheapest method of reducing energy costs. However, he also takes advantage of renewable energy, having installed solar electric (photovoltaics) on his roof back in the ‘80s. After 23 years, these panels have lost only 3 percent of their output capacity, and they store energy in a huge AGM battery bank for use when the sun isn’t out. Sklar also uses a solar water heater, solar-powered attic vent fan, and peel-&-stick photovoltaics. Peel-&-stick photovoltaics are less efficient than conventional solar panels, but only take one-twentieth of the time to install, making them popular for metal-seamed roofs, parking lot awnings, and even boat decks. Sklar’s home doesn’t rely exclusively on solar power: it boasts a geothermal direct-exchange heat pump, which transfers heat out of the ground through four 100-foot deep holes.
Between his home and back office building is a see-through awning walkway, covered in transparent solar films made of electric-producing ink that produces electricity to power overhead LED lights, and an area-wide Wi-Fi unit. Sklar explained that these may soon become a normal feature in dense, metropolitan streets.
Sklar’s back office building (with an insulation level of R50) houses a smart web-enabled battery bank, which allows him to keep track of all of the various power sources on his property, including a hydrogen fuel cell, a small wind turbine, and solar electric roofing shingles. The buildings boasts super-insulating windows, solar daylighting systems, and solar driven ceiling fans.
When Sklar first began installing these features to his property, Virginia did not yet have alternative energy building codes. As a result, Sklar had to educate county officials on the matter, often times asking various National Lab officials to support his case. Now, he still has to show that his wind turbines are not too loud, and cause no harm to birds, which has not been a problem so far for the last decade.
Were the bureaucratic hassles worth it? Sklar says his energy investments have paid off handsomely, by eliminating his electricity bill. He was able to pay for all the efficiency retrofits and renewable energy installations through conventional means. He took out a second mortgage to fund his solar panels, which are now completely paid off. His geothermal heat pump was paid for using his tax refund. His whole back office was built using a business loan, which also covered energy efficiency features and renewable energy installations. His fuel cell was the first fuel cell to be leased in the United States.
Sklar’s pioneering home has gained quite a reputation, drawing VIPs from all around the world, such as ministers from Central America and Africa. Its nondescript appearance belies its international profile. The house looks just like any other in its neighborhood in the Arlington suburbs, just a short walk away from the Clarendon metro station. And Sklar’s neighborhood is basically just like any other suburb in the United States. During the tour, kids run around on the streets, couples walk by in strollers, and joggers wave with a smile. Clearly, one doesn’t need a lot of space to make one’s home energy self-sufficient!
One of the main advantages of Sklar’s net-zero energy home is its resiliency. The house is completely independent—it’s not connected to the grid. On the one hand, Sklar cannot use net metering to sell his surplus energy back to the local utility. But on the other, his home is unaffected when a blackout occurs, which is often in the area. Last year, during the polar vortex, Sklar’s home was the only house in the neighborhood with power. He proceeded to invite his neighbors to use his electricity—at one point, his supply was being used to recharge 18 cell phones! His resilient home was particularly helpful to neighbors who had medicines that required refrigeration (Sklar happily offered room in his fridge). The area experiences about four outages a year, creating opportunities for Sklar to share his electricity, his knowledge, and a couple glasses of single malt scotch. Sklar is very proud of his cutting-edge buildings, and believes it shows that no single technology can solve the world’s energy problems. Instead, solutions require an “elegant blend,” which his home and office building exemplifies perfectly.
Author: Carlos Villacis