Assessing the feasibility of solar residential development in Austin, Texas

Zion, Mark Hamilton
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It is the goal of this report to make a preliminary examination of the issues determining the feasibility of residential development in Austin, Texas using solar and renewable resources. The question addressed here is, if one had the inclination and the means to develop a solar residential subdivision in Austin, what are the institutional, market, and technical frames within which such an endeavor would have to operate. In order to focus on important issues for the prospective solar residential developer, several existing planned solar developments have been surveyed, and the experiences of the developers, builders, and purchasers have been reviewed. It appears that the potential of solar residential development hinges on the feasibility and acceptance of renewables in four major contexts. First, to be successful, solar residential development must be technically feasible; that is, the solar and renewable technologies utilized must be technically able to make a significant contribution to residential energy needs, as mitigated by the local environment. To establish this technical feasibility, a prototypical solar home design for the area has been created and analyzed for economic and energy performance. In sum, for minor incremental solar cost, a new Austin home can operate on 65 percent less energy than a conventional home. Major contributions are available from renewables in the areas of space heating (80 percent), space cooling (45 percent), and domestic hot water heating (80 percent). Appropriate siting can also make significant contributions to transportation and land use energy needs. Secondly, the successful solar residential development must have appeal within the Austin area housing market. Market feasibility has been addressed through the development of a list of characteristics of the potential solar homebuyer, and through an examination of the future housing market in Austin. When the needs and desires of the prospective solar homebuyer are compared to the character of anticipated Austin housing demand, it is apparent that over seventy percent of the new single-family owner-occupied homes to be demanded in Austin from 1980 to 1985 are well-matched with the probable solar purchaser. Solar housing is technically feasible and marketable in Austin, however, the attitudes and actions of major social institutions will ultimately determine the success of any solar development effort. Such a venture must be acceptable within the lending community which will provide its financing, and within the public sector which must have either a positive or negative impact on solar development. Lenders in general have a positive attitude toward solar, and if the solar development project is presented in the proper financial context, money should be available for both construction financing and homeowner mortgages. Public policies at the local, state, and federal levels do not present major barriers to solar residential development in Austin. However, the incentives for renewables and energy conservation offered by public policy are still in a preliminary phase and need to be strengthened and refined if these technologies are to be widely diffused. Thus, this report will examine (1) the institutional feasibility of solar residential development in relation to the lending community and the public sector, (2) the feasibility of solar penetration into the future Austin housing market, and (3) the technical feasibility of solar and renewable residential energy systems. These issues will be addressed in that order, and in conclusion, an examination of the implications of solar residential development for regional energy use, for public policy, for public awareness, and for public ethics will be made