A plan announced by Idaho Power last month to cut carbon-emitting power sources completely within the next 25 years took Hailey energy consultant John Reuter by surprise.
“I was both surprised and pleased,” said the father of two who works in the field of energy-efficient housing-system design.
“As a father I am increasingly thinking about the future of the planet and about reducing our carbon footprint,” Reuter said.
While most of us think of the Idaho utility company as a source of electricity, Reuter uses its electrical grid to sell power back into the system. His goal is to at least break even.
Reuter said the owners of an 1,800-square-foot, two-story single-family “net-zero” home in Old Cutters subdivision in Hailey for which he designed a system sold more electricity to Idaho Power last year than it consumed.
Two more net-zero home energy systems designed by Reuter are expected to come online this year, one in west Ketchum and the other at Reuter’s own home in old Hailey.
“You would think these are just quiet, comfortable, ordinary houses,” Reuter said.
Reuter, 34, came to town from Maine in 2004 and founded John Reuter Greenworks LLC. He works as a solar panel installer at his company Bluebird Solar.
Though solar prices leveled off about two years ago after falling for many years, Reuter said demand for his expertise has remained steady.
Before Idaho Power made plans to wash its hands of coal-fired energy generation and turn completely to solar, hydropower and wind energy, Reuter was using solar panels, superinsulation and highly efficient heating sources to become a part of the local solution to global warming.
Reuter’s work in the valley took shape in 2011 when Blaine County passed a Build Smart Code that requires all new homes to have energy efficiency measures built into their designs.
Reuter conducts “blower door” tests for air leaks in buildings and establishes energy ratings for homes, which he said is similar to measuring the “miles per gallon” of energy consumption that will pass through a new home. These ratings are required for any new home in the county over 2,500 square feet.
Reuter also works to help builders meet criteria in the National Green Building Standard Program, required of every new home in Ketchum.
“There have been incremental improvements in energy-efficient building codes in recent years and a greater interest in indoor air quality,” he said. “Efficient LED lighting has come down in price so much. But there are still only a small percentage of buildings that are built with a thermal envelope (the insulated shell of a home) that is above code.”
Reuter said a net-zero home typically has a building envelope three times as insulated as a conventional home, due to a combination of 10-inch double-stud walls, triple pane windows and “extra air-tight” roof and flooring designs.
Reuter said the buildings have superior air quality, due to full-time ventilation and heat-recovery systems.
“It turns out they are considerably healthier than your average house because they’re bringing in fresh air that is filtered at a known rate,” he said.
Reuter’s net zero systems are heated and cooled by small, ductless mini-split heat pumps, which condense outside air to extract heat. He said the innovative pumps are three times more efficient than baseboard electric heaters. He installed three of them in the 4,000-foot, two-story house he is completing for his family at 102 S. Fourth Ave. in Hailey.
“There’s a perception that a building with modern efficiency has to be a box, but ours is a traditional looking home,” he said.
Reuter also installed a very small woodstove in his home for backup in case of a power outage.
“We also like the ambience,” he said.
Reuter said there are some trade-offs in going net zero, including a focus on compact building shapes.
“A wandering ranch-style home is harder to make net zero because it’s harder to heat,” he said.
Going off the electrical grid is not part of Reuter’s plan, but being independent of the source of a utility company’s energy sources is.
“If I was off the grid, I would have to install propane or a very expensive battery system,” he said.
Reuter said that when planning a home, a designer can determine a lot with energy modelling. However, he noted that “how an occupant lives is a variable. Taking four hot baths a day would take a lot of energy.”