(Watch this story Monday morning on WZZM TV-13) Habitat for Humanity of Kent County completed construction of its first all-electric home this spring, called Carbon Footprint Build, the first step in its growing commitment to sustainable housing development.
The nonprofit hopes to move to building fully electric homes within the next two years, according to Mark Ogland-Hand, senior donor relations specialist at Habitat Kent.
Habitat Kent has partnered with energy consumers and Calvin University to build its carbon footprint. Engineering students came to the site and worked with Habitat Kent throughout the process, mapping energy efficiency and studying the effects that a carbon neutral structure would have on its occupants, to ensure Habitat Kent is working toward something truly sustainable.
“We tracked the carbon footprint of the home in partnership with Calvin University’s Department of Engineering,” said Abby Langenberg, Habitat Kent’s director of construction and warehousing. “We found it had a 30% lower carbon footprint than the same home built three years ago that was outfitted with a highly efficient gas-fired oven and water heater.”
Located in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood, the house is currently occupied and emits no greenhouse gases.
According to Ogland-Hand, carbon-neutral housing in Michigan is long overdue. In the southern states, the idea has already advanced significantly, and the popularity of homes powered by electricity is growing. However, in northern states such as Michigan, significantly lower temperatures in winter create additional obstacles for energy-efficient buildings. The energy needed to heat a home during the winter in Michigan when temperatures are below zero is much greater than the energy needed to keep it cool.
For Habitat Kent, the solution is a unit called an air source heat pump.
According to the US Department of Energy, a properly installed pump can provide up to three times more thermal energy to a home than the electrical energy it consumes. This results in an efficiency of up to 300%.
Air source heat pumps operate on a system very similar to air conditioners, said Ogaland-Hand. By using electricity to transfer energy between indoor and outdoor air, the units transfer heat rather than generate it, increasing the efficiency of the process.
In the heating mode, pumps absorb low-temperature heat from outside the building and transfer it to the interior at high, concentrated temperatures. The system uses a similar structure and equipment as an air conditioning system but operates in reverse. During the cooling cycle, the pump does the opposite, removing heat inside the building and transferring it back to the outside.
An air source heat pump is a single unit that delivers heating and cooling capabilities, saving energy, reducing a home’s carbon footprint by not burning any fossil fuels, and lowering heating and cooling costs, according to Habitat Kent.
For those who build a home, success often comes down to the smallest detail. Insulation, for example, is a key factor in building an energy-efficient home that can withstand Michigan’s cold temperatures.
Those little details include tasks like taking extra steps during the insulation process or even sealing off small areas of airflow to reduce heat loss, Troy Bethers, superintendent of the Habitat Kent buildings site, told volunteers. Such steps aren’t everyone’s favorite, Bethers said, but could end up saving nearly $1,000 a year in energy costs.
For Ogland-Hand and Bev Thiel, Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, choosing to pursue the creation of energy-efficient, eco-friendly homes for the community is one that epitomizes Habitat’s entire mission: to provide decent and affordable housing.
Thiel said Habitat Kent is looking to give homeowners the opportunity to reduce their environmental impact. Not only does it provide fully electric housing, it also lowers the cost for its occupants, giving them a healthy and affordable environment for themselves and their families.
“Today, I watched a webinar featuring MSHDA (the Michigan State Housing Development Authority) and the Michigan Environmental Council, and heard an interesting comment,” Ogland-Hand said. “They said that in previous policy discussions, housing had always been part of the ‘social services’ group, but Now also part of the climate/environment policy discussion as well.
“This is kind of what we do here at Habitat Kent. We have one foot in the social services/social justice community and another in the environment/climate justice debate.”