Nebraska's first geothermal development is more than a field of dreams

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By Matt Gersib

The first homes have recently been completed at the Bridges, including “the Madison,” the state’s first net-zero-efficiency home, pictured at left above. (Matt Gersib)

Leadership manifests itself in a number of ways. Whether on the field of sport, in the boardroom or in government, a good leader sets an example for others to follow and does so without boasting. It’s always more challenging to lead than to follow, but the rewards are greater with success for leaders.

And so it is with the Bridges, a new subdivision near Southwest 27th Street and West Denton Road in Lincoln, Neb. For builder Mike Rezac, owner of Lincoln’s Rezac Construction Company and chairman of the Nebraska Green Building Council, taking a leadership role in development of the state’s first fully geothermal neighborhood is something he’s absolutely passionate about. For him and partner Gary Pickering, the development is the culmination of a dream borne out of respect for the land and a belief that the status quo in home building simply isn’t going to be good enough for a lot of homebuyers in the near future.

“I was part of the team that built the state’s first certified green home more than five years ago,” Rezac said. “At the time, we were just establishing Nebraska’s green building standards. The whole green building movement was just getting off the ground in Nebraska. Since then, we’ve developed a specific expertise in the design and construction of efficient, green-certified homes.

“Moving forward, as energy becomes an increasingly valuable resource, it makes sense that we pay more attention to how we’re generating and using the electricity we need to power our homes and our lives. There are so many ways to increase home efficiency during design and construction.”

Site of the state’s first net-zero-efficiency home

The culmination of Rezac’s green building experience is on display for all to see at the Bridges—the state’s first net-zero-efficiency home. Dubbed “the Madison,” the house is a partnership between Rezac Builders and the Nebraska Energy Office, Norris Public Power, Nebraska Public Power District and the Lincoln Electric System, in addition to numerous contractors and suppliers who provided the high-efficiency systems, green building materials and equipment necessary to make the net-zero-efficiency dream a reality.

Currently an on-site demonstration home at the Bridges, the Madison is being used to promote green building to homeowners and teach builders about the construction materials and techniques associated with green building. The Madison will eventually be sold to a lucky homeowner, who will reap the benefits of the home’s solar electric power courtesy of 48 photovoltaic panels built into the south facing roof and awnings, innovative “flash and bat” wall insulation, featuring 1.5 inches of closed-cell, high-density foam for maximum efficiency, Energy Star rated appliances and pond-based geothermal system.

The solar electric system that provides electric power to the Madison is particularly compelling. Controlled by a central panel in the living room, it includes a real-time display of the power generation status of the photovoltaic cells, which are built to withstand up to 1-inch thick hail and last up to 30 years. On a sunny day, the system is capable of metering electricity back into the public electric grid, where it is sold back to Norris Public Power through a recently adopted policy called net metering. The arrangement allows the Madison to use the utility much like a battery, putting in electricity when it can and drawing electricity when needed, such as on a cloudy day. The goal is that, at the end of the year, the solar electric system will have produced at least as much energy as the home will have used.

Everything about the Madison—from the materials to the construction to the east-west direction the house is set on the lot and the awnings above its south-facing windows—is designed to reduce the homeowner’s utility bills to zero at the end of the year, hence the net-zero designation.

At the Bridges, every home is geothermal

Numerous bridges on the roads and hiking-biking paths—including this covered bridge at the entrance—are a highlight of the Bridges community. (The Bridges)

The Bridges got its name from the numerous bridges that form the entrance and span several key connections within the development’s network of six large ponds, each of which are stocked with a unique breed of fish. Rezac said that his love of fishing drove his desire to stock the diverse fish varieties, including bluegill, bass and stripers, but the ponds themselves have a much more practical purpose. They provide the foundation for the geothermal heat exchange units that each of the homes will employ at the Bridges. As the state’s first fully geothermal development, it is written into the neighborhood by-laws that each and every home utilize geothermal heating and cooling systems. In fact, the price of each Bridges lot includes the geothermal transfer lines from the home to the geothermal cooling units underground or underwater, depending on system design.

Geothermal heating and cooling systems, more commonly known as heat pumps, utilize more stable subsurface ground or water temperatures to heat and cool the home. By circulating a loop of environmentally sensitive glycol solution through the geothermal loop, heat from the warmer earth or pond is circulated into the home during the winter and circulated out of the home during the summer. The earth or water is essentially used as the heat sink that either heats or cools the glycol solution, depending on the season. Whereas a high-efficiency fossil-fuel furnace may operate at 95 percent efficiency, a geothermal heat pump can operate during the heating season at efficiencies approaching or exceeding 400 percent, according to data from the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium.

The only cost for operation of a geothermal unit includes the small amount of electricity necessary to operate the fan, compressor and pump. Otherwise, the geothermal unit does not rely on fossil fuels to heat or cool the home.

Residents using geothermal heat pump systems should experience significant reductions in energy costs. The Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium says that, compared to conventional heating and cooling units, homeowners can expect to save between 30 and 70 percent on energy costs, overall. When factored with system costs averaging between $6,000 and $8,000, homeowners can expect their geothermal systems will pay for themselves well within their useful lifetimes.

Geothermal heating and cooling systems are also better for the environment, since they don’t burn fossil fuel and use very little electricity. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that by installing a geothermal system, over its typical 20-year lifespan the savings in greenhouse emissions are roughly equivalent to taking two cars permanently off the road, or to planting 750 trees!

Deb Wagner, a realtor with Woods Bros Realty in Lincoln, said that now is a great time to build an energy efficient home at the Bridges. For a limited time, the developers are offering a $6,000 geothermal credit towards the purchase price at closing. In addition, a 30 percent federal personal geothermal tax credit is available and buyers may also qualify for special loan interest buy-downs from the State of Nebraska and participating local banks. She thinks the combination of incentives makes building an energy-efficient home with geothermal a smart and cost-effective alternative, offering great savings up front and over the long term.

Wagner said the Bridges also offers an appealing “best of both worlds” setting.

“One family I’m working with now had been looking at acreages, but they’ve found the Bridges to be an incredibly appealing alternative,” she said. “They like the fact that the wide open spaces offered by the ponds and common areas found at The Bridges give them an ‘acreage feel.’ Plus, the sense of community they’d have at the Bridges would be a wonderful thing to have, especially while raising children.”

It’s great to be green

As he gave a guided tour of the Madison on an overcast late-June day, Mike Rezac said that everything he’s done in the Madison is scalable, so even if a customer doesn’t want a $600,000 net-zero home featuring high-end wood trim, top-of-the-line fixtures and state-of-the-art lighting, solar electric and water systems, many of the same technologies can be incorporated into less expensive homes.

“The carpet, for example, is made out of recycled pop bottles,” Rezac pointed out as we walked across the living room. “You could use this carpet in any house—a new construction or a remodel, and it would be an environmentally sound choice. And from a product performance standpoint, you couldn’t tell it apart from carpet manufactured with virgin materials. It performs really well.”

Rezac said that, like anything else, there is often going to be a higher up-front cost associated with green building due to the increased cost of materials, processing and manufacturing. He says that, over time, those costs should moderate as green building becomes more prevalent and the materials and techniques he employs are more widely used by builders.

“Ultimately, it’s going to be the homebuying public that decides if the concept of a geothermal neighborhood will really take off,” he said. “It’s our belief that there are more than a few families in Lincoln and the surrounding area that are ready and willing to take a leadership position on the environment, and they’ll do it in a big way that clearly demonstrates the depth of their commitment to the environment. They’ll do it for their children, for their community and because it’s the right thing to do for the future.”

For more information about the Bridges, contact Woods Bros Realty agents Mike Thomalla at (402) 430-8122 or Deb Wagner at (402) 440-1314 or visit http://www.TheBridgesNE.com. Learn more about the science, technology, environmental benefits and savings that can be experienced with geothermal technology at the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium’s Web site, http:// www.geoexchange.org. The Ne­braska Green Builders Web site offers detailed explanations on what green building is, why going green matters, builders to work with and other resources. Visit http://www.nebraskagreenbuilders.com to learn more. The Nebraska Energy Office Web site is also a great resource for information on green building and Nebraska-certified green built homes, as well as a listing of certified green builders in the state. Visit http:// www.neo.ne.gov and click on “Green Built Homes” in the left navigation to learn more.

 

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