How Long Does It Take to Pay Off a Net-Zero Home?

December 11, 2018

Net-zero homes—those that make as much energy as they put out—may cost more up front to build, but they can save homeowners money on their energy bills. Eventually, that savings adds up and the home can pay for itself, no matter where you live, a new study shows.

Net-zero energy homes usually are outfitted with rooftop solar panels, energy-efficient insulation, triple-pane windows, energy-savvy appliances, LED lighting, and smart thermostats. Builders will take the home’s design and natural lighting into account too, such as the position of windows and overhangs that could supply additional solar heating in the winter or shade in the summer months.

The Rocky Mountain Institute, a research nonprofit focusing on clean energy, looked at how long it takes for the savings on a net-zero home to cover the initial costs of a 2,200-square-foot home in the 30 largest U.S. cities. Here are the top cities where you can pay off a net-zero home in the fastest amount of time:

  1. San Francisco: 7.8 years 
  2. Detroit: 9.1 years
  3. Baltimore: 9.2 years
  4. Columbus, Ohio: 9.7 years
  5. New York: 10.1 years
  6. Phoenix: 10.7 years
  7. Jacksonville, Fla.: 10.9 years
  8. Los Angeles: 11 years
  9. Washington, D.C.: 11 years
  10. Chicago: 11.4 years
  11. Sacramento, Calif.: 11.7 years
  12. Indianapolis: 12.3 years
  13. Portland, Ore.: 12.3 years
  14. Seattle: 12.4 years
  15. Dallas: 12.5 years
  16. Oakland, Calif.: 12.5 years
  17. Wichita, Kan.: 12.5 years

The costs of building net-zero homes can vary widely geographically. The biggest savings tend to be in locales with high electricity rates and older building codes, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute.

“Zero-energy homes are actually affordable,” Jacob Corvidae, principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute, told InsideClimate News. Corvidae stresses this it is important to note because consumers, builders, and policymakers may be reluctant to encourage net-zero building over perceptions that it isn’t affordable.

But even in places like Detroit—not known for its year-round sunshine that would make solar as attractive—net-zero homes can be paid off in less than a decade, one of the fastest regions in the country. A 2,200-square-foot net-zero energy home in Detroit would cost $19,753 more to build than the same house without any solar or standard efficiency. But that home's energy bill savings would be $2,508 in the first year. The solar and efficiency costs would pay for themselves in about 9 years, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute study.

Some of the nation’s largest home builders, like PulteGroup and Meritage Homes, are offering more net-zero energy options to consumers. Pearl Homes in Cortez, Fla., is building a zero-energy community that uses energy storage and electric vehicle chargers.

“We’re starting to see the tip of that iceberg, and when it really hits, it’s going to be huge,” says Ann Edminster, a consultant and architect who works with the Net-Zero Energy Coalition.

Net-Zero Energy Homes Pay Off Faster Than You Think—Even in Chilly Midwest,” InsideClimate News (Dec. 10, 2018) and “The Economics of Zero-Energy Homes,” Rocky Mountain Institute