What if instead of paying for your home's electricity, your home paid you?
It might sound like wishful thinking, but the scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology are close to making it a reality with a unique laboratory that masquerades as a Washington, D.C. area home.
Unveiled Wednesday, the NIST Net-Zero Energy Residential Test Facility, produces as much or more energy than it uses thanks to a litany of high-tech features such as solar panels, cutting-edge heating and cooling systems, and a virtually airtight construction. The energy not consumed by the four-bedroom, three-bath home is sold back to the utility company, helping to offset the electricity owners would have to buy in heavier usage months.
Analysts estimate the 2,700 square-foot home will generate 15 to 20 percent more energy than it uses and sell electricity on net for as many as 8 months out of the year.
Helping scientists test the home's systems and determine whether it's truly "net-zero" is a virtual family of four. Energy use by the family will be simulated by computers that turn on and off various household appliances according to daily routines.
"Yes, the shower for the 14-year-old is much longer," jokes Hunter Fanney, chief of NIST's energy and environment division, the group heading research and testing at the net-zero home.
But if the idea of a "super energy efficient" home leads to thoughts of a weird, space-age Jetsons abode, think again. Save for a few discrete solar panels perched atop the roof, NIST's home looks just like a newly-built upscale home complete with beautiful siding, exquisite architectural details, custom built-ins, and high-end finishes galore.
"This home has all the features and aesthetics you would find in an upscale Washington, D.C. metro home," Fanney says. "There's really nothing exotic about it and nothing that can't be readily done with conventional construction."
Building the home is just the first phase of the project. This fall, NIST scientists and engineers will begin a two-year long research project designed to put the net-zero home to the test. Computers will simulate everything from cell phone charging, to vacuum cleaner use, to the amount of water used to cook meals and bathe.
The goal of the project, besides savings on energy costs, is to come up with the next generation of building codes and construction standards.
Mark Davis, an engineer on the project, says there are communities across the country that offer net-zero options, but availability is still very limited for those seeking the ultimate in eco-friendly living.
"The idea is to influence the building industry," Davis says. "We're trying to develop codes and standards that will move us toward net-zero."
But being able to find a net-zero home on the market isn't the only obstacle. A property outfitted with state-of-the-art energy efficiency technology can set homebuyers back $600,000 or more, not including the cost of the lot. Adding fancy appliances and high-end finishes can tack on even more to the sale price.
Still, those involved in the $2.5 million stimulus-funded project see more than dollar signs when they look at the impact of their research. Given that buildings use more energy than the transportation and industrial sectors, even small advances in energy efficiency can mean big savings, not only on consumers' energy bills, but on electricity use overall.
Meg Handley is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @mmhandley.