'The future is now': Habitat for Humanity builds first net-zero homes in Winnipeg

The lights are on at Habitat for Humanity Manitoba’s first ever net-zero build.

5 new solar-panelled homes will produce as much energy as they use

Kahasse Gebremicahel, centre, and the other families moving into Habitat for Humanity Manitoba's first net-zero homes flipped the switch to start power flowing Thursday. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

The lights are on at Habitat for Humanity Manitoba's first ever net-zero build.

The families moving into the solar-panelled power homes — which will generate at least as much energy as they use — were on hand to flip the switch and start the power flowing Thursday.

"We don't have to pay for hydro … it's beyond my expectations," said Kahasse Gebremicahel, who will move into the Logan Avenue four-plex with his wife and two daughters in June.

"They said it's going to produce as much [power] as it consumes, so that means I'm paying nothing.… It's a big deal."

In all, Habitat has built five net-zero homes in Winnipeg — the four-plex and a single family home across the street. Sandy Hopkins, the charity's CEO, says the project is a first in Manitoba.

"This is over and above — by a significant amount — anything we have done to date," he said.

Each home is equipped 30 solar panels, producing savings of roughly 12,680 kilowatt hours every year per unit. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

Each home has 30 solar panels producing 9.6 kilowatts per hour, which translates into a savings of roughly 12,680 kilowatt hours every year, says Jason Miller, who designed the homes.

"It comes into the house, goes down to the panels," he said of the solar energy. 

"They use whatever they can and whatever they don't use goes right back out to Manitoba Hydro's grid."

Habitat for Humanity Manitoba CEO Sandy Hopkins says the build is a first for the charity. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

But that doesn't mean the families will get money back from Hydro for the power they don't use.

Miller says they'll get credits for energy they put back into the grid during the sunny summer months, which will be taken off their winter bills — hopefully leaving them with an annual bill of $0.

"It should balance out," he said.

Super energy efficiency 

Miller says while there are already homes in Manitoba taking advantage of solar power, only a handful have combined the renewable power source with a super energy-efficient design.

It's the combination of the two models that leads to the net zero classification, he says.

To accomplish net zero, builders needed to improve air tightness — Miller says the homes set a Manitoba record for how well they're sealed — and increase insulation levels to make sure the homes use as little energy as possible.

"They'll be able to turn on their air conditioner for an hour and it'll probably last all day," said Miller.

The power meters on the homes go both forward and backward, so any extra power generated can be credited back to the home owner. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

He says it took two years to design and build the homes, and making them net zero added five months to the design stage and around $50,000 to the total cost of each unit.

Miller says it couldn't have been done without the help of private sponsors including Qualico, Sycamore Energy and Prairie House Performance.

Gio Robson, president of Prairie House Performance, says he expects all new home builds will be mandated by code to be net zero ready in Manitoba by 2030. He said the Habitat homes set an important precedent for builders across the province. 

Gio Robson, president of Prairie House Performance, says the Habitat homes set a precedent for other builds in the province. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"Habitat has proven that this isn't a 2030 house, this is a 2019 house. The future is now," he said.

"If we can do it here, and Habitat can do it affordably, we can do it anywhere."

Miller said the homes mark the first time Habitat for Humanity has achieved a net-zero build anywhere in the world, and they could end up as the blueprint for future Habitat homes internationally.

"We're already well ahead of the grade on efficiency, so this our next step," he said.

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