West Village In Davis: Not Net Zero, But Getting There

UC Davis West Village opened two years ago promising to become “the nation’s largest planned zero net energy community” – but is it living up to the billing? Not yet, perhaps, but the public-private partnership behind the project says an early look reveals it’s well on its way.

A report by the Davis Energy Group undertaken between March 2012 and February 2013 shows the complex – home to around 1,500 people, including students, faculty and families – produced 2,981 megawatt-hours of energy using 2.1 megawatts of photovoltaic solar panels and consumed 3,421 MWh. That’s not net zero, but then again, the project isn’t yet completed.

image via UC Davis

image via UC Davis

“West Village’s first-phase components have achieved a remarkable 87 percent of the initial ZNE goal, years ahead of the full comple­tion of the community,” the report said.

One culprit in the building falling just a bit short of ZNE, even at this early stage of the development, was apparently a set of faulty heat pump water heaters installed for the student housing portion of the facility.

“During commissioning, this problem was identified and has been resolved by the WVCP team,” the report said. “Nonethe­less, reliance on the backup water heating systems added substantial unanticipated power demand to the project.”

The study also found that some of the assumptions about energy consumption weren’t quite right – particularly for student housing:

In a typi­cal multi-family setting, there may be only one or two computers for the household, one gaming system, and other multi-user appliances. In contrast, a four-bed­room student housing apartment turns out to resemble four separate households, each with its own computer, smart phone, gaming system, television, and other separate appliances. WVCP, working with research­ers at UC Davis, is developing educational programs to encourage students to conserve energy. Additional solar PV alternatives to offset overconsumption are be­ing evaluated.

The next reporting period for the complex will end on August 2014. There will be a whole lot of new stuff going on in the interim, the developers said, including new apartments and PV systems, commercial space, and the opening of an offsite anaerobic digester at the UC Davis landfill that will produce electricity that “may be credited towards West Village consumption to achieve the ZNE goal.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.