Sustainability is Not an "Upgrade"

(The following op-ed, co-authored by Gerry Braun and Mark Braly, appeared in both the Davis Enterprise and the Davis Vanguard in the last week of September, 2015.)

The City of Davis and UC Davis have climate action plans that call for aggressive carbon footprint reductions.  Both have had recent opportunities to put their plans into action.  UCD partnered with a private land developer to create West Village, a new residential development on land west of its main campus.  A mutually agreed goal was that all the energy used by West Village homes and would be supplied by on-site renewable energy systems.

Additional goals were that the net zero energy be achieved at no additional cost to West Village residents and no loss of profitability to the developer.  Thanks to detailed technical and financial analysis, combined with energy conserving design features recommended by Davis Energy Group and solar electricity infrastructure skillfully provided by SunPower Corp., as of November 2013 West Village was “well on the way to the ultimate goal of operating as a ZNE community”. [1]

More recently, the City of Davis negotiated an a development agreement with The New Homes Company to create a new housing development in Davis called The Cannery.  Project plans called for consideration energy conscious design features along the lines of those adopted for West Village.  However, no energy or climate action goals were set.


During negotiation of The Cannery development agreement, representatives of the Valley Climate Action Center (VCAC) met with negotiators for both sides and advocated for a net zero goal for The Cannery following the West Village example.  It was clear at the time that such a goal would be unachievable unless certain essential features, e.g. properly sized rooftop solar arrays, would standard for all buildings.

No energy related goals were set, but New Homes did decide to include solar arrays (undersized relative to design energy usage) on all Cannery single family homes, albeit, explaining that larger solar arrays and net zero energy packages would be offered as upgrades. 

Net zero energy goals were achieved at West Village under less favorable conditions, e.g. at a time when rooftop solar installation costs were significantly higher than they are today and during the remainder of The Cannery build-out.  So, the VCAC board arranged a follow up meeting with City and New Homes representatives last week to re-open discussion of climate action goals.

VCAC representatives pointed out that on its current trajectory, The Cannery development will add significantly to the City’s carbon footprint unless a large percentage of initial home buyers opt for necessary upgrades.  They further pointed out that, while net zero energy can be cost-effectively achieved during initial construction, later retrofits aiming for net zero will practically and economically unrewarding.  Incremental owner initiated solar array upgrades will be as much as two or three times more costly on a unit energy basis than their cost as part of the new construction process.

After considering New Homes’ description of their sales process for The Cannery, the VCAC board voted to recommend that The New Homes Partnership and the City of Davis collaborate to establish a net zero goal for The Cannery and to include standard features in Cannery homes that lead to its achievement.  VCAC believes that both parties can advance their reputations for innovation and environmental stewardship by adopting a net zero goal for The Cannery. 

Perhaps more importantly, in taking action, both parties can correct their original message to the public and the world.  In a home construction and sales context, thicker carpets and other amenities are rightly labeled and offered as profitable upgrades.  In a moral and environmental stewardship dimension, sustainability is not an upgrade.  It is basic to bringing a potentially runaway global climate back into balance.