An Interview With A Solar Installer: Western Solar

“You can get a little lost if all you care about as a business is the profit and loss.”

– Markus Virta, Western Solar

Our team has been fortunate to work with incredible partners on this project, and in this second installment of our sponsor interviews I sat down with Markus Virta of Western Solar. Through this interview, I wanted to learn what brought Markus to our project and how it fits with the work of this regional solar installer.

“When I started with Western Solar in 2010, we were installing at $10 per watt. The price is now at $2.40 per watt.” This immense price drop in solar is reflected across the renewable energy spectrum, and it speaks to the excitement and possibility that ZeNETH is trying to showcase. As the joint manager of Western Solar and Director of Sales, Markus relies not just upon the enviable cost reductions to sell solar, but also upon developing authentic connections with the employees and customers of Western Solar. “One thing that Eric Blatz [operational manager of WS] and I talk about is how we’ll look back on our lives in business. We know that we’re judged by how we treat our customers and employees. That’s why we offer the benefits and wages we do. I believe good jobs are absolutely necessary for the energy transition, otherwise we’ll fall short of really transitioning.”

Project ZeNETH hasn’t been the only not-for-profit project that Western Solar has partnered with in Whatcom County. They have installed solar for the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Lydia Place, Bellingham Food Bank, and the Bellingham High School. For the high school project, students are now monitoring the solar production and learning about the variability of energy production given weather and environmental conditions. These projects speak to the unpredictable benefits that come with doing work that is simply good for people and good for the planet. Profit and loss, as Markus will attest, cannot dictate the entire direction of a business. Instead, he’s learned to, “say yes easily” to projects that appeal to a social and environmental need.

As far as getting involved with Western and ZeNETH, Markus said that, “closing the gap between students and business is a major focus of mine, and something that I wish had been more discussed when I was a student,” It’s his hope that this type of bridging between institutions will get more students on track to be involved in the renewable energy industry, be it in policy, project management, or especially in the trade skills. To show their appreciation for continued education, Western Solar provides a $1,000 annual stipend to employees to follow their educational interests. This investment in an individual’s education not only directly benefits the employee, but generates a stronger work force to keep up with this rapidly developing renewable energy transition.

We have much gratitude for the work that the Western Solar team has already put forth in Project ZeNETH, and we look forward to showcasing their professional handiwork on the roof of our net-zero energy tiny house. You can check out more of their work on their website, including their installation of Washington State’s largest ‘made-in-Washington’ solar array. Fun fact: those panels were manufactured in Bellingham by Silfab Solar (formally Itek Energy), another sponsor of ZeNETH! Small world.

RISE

We’ve met many similarly impassioned people throughout this project. It started with bright eyed students and quickly gave way to ambitious professors, excited administrators, and generous sponsors. One of the friends we’ve made along the way is Dr Maria Saxton of Virginia Tech. She earned her Ph.D. in Environmental Design and Planning in the Building Construction Department and now guides communities and companies in developing better housing options. She also writes for Rise, an online homeowner’s resource for understanding how to incorporate sustainability into their home improvements. Maria and the team at Rise decided that ZeNETH would be a great story for other folks interested in the next generation of building, so she interviewed us!

Project ZeNETH (zero-net-energy tiny home) started with a class at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, that focused on carbon-neutral home design. The instructor tasked students with not only drawing the floor plans of an energy-efficient home but also with creating a full energy analysis of net-zero energy homes. Kellen Lynch, an undergraduate from the Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies and the Institute for Energy Studies at Western Washington University, asked himself, “What if we made this assignment real?””

You can find the full story here on Rise.

 

 

A Shared Vision

“Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee visited Western’s campus on Monday, Nov. 4, to talk to students about climate and energy policy. Brittany Portillo, an energy policy major and director of the women in energy mentoring network, and Kellen Lynch, an energy studies and Fairhaven major and project manager of the ZeNETH Net Zero Tiny House, escorted Inslee to his car after speaking to the class.” (Western Front)

Big thanks to Governor Jay Inslee for visiting Western last month and taking the time to talk to energy students about climate change and our collective opportunity to do great work. The ZeNETH team feels additionally grateful for being recognized as leaders at Western in the energy institute with this special meet and greet with Jay. It’s clear that we share a similar vision of a better future that relies on clean energy. Being able to share Project ZeNETH with him was very validating, and we hope his support will only help us broaden our coalition to meet our goals. Thanks, Jay.

How To Heat A Tiny House

Tealight Candle on Human Palms

As we wake up to frosty roofs and plumes of steam from the natural gas plant, I feel it’s the right time to talk about heating. How we heat, cool, and light our 132 million buildings in this country is critical to how we live sustainably, because these three operational aspects often demand the most energy in our built environment.

ZeNETH’s goal to achieve a high degree of energy efficiency, thereby lowering its electricity consumption, is critical to our project’s research. We have the opportunity to determine what the most efficient heating option will be given our small living space. Therefore, we will be setting up a heating experiment to measure the utility of a heat pump compared to a radiant heating panel. Thanks to our sponsor Trane, we are installing a Mitsubishi ductless heat pump which, despite being their smallest unit, is likely going to provide more heating capacity than we require. Heat pumps are great for most houses residential, and are often the most efficient heating option available. Perhaps it will be just right in the tiny house, or perhaps we’ll inspire some engineers to produce a tiny house friendly heat pump unit.

Image result for mitsubishi heat pump

Mitsubishi Electric Heat Pump from Trane

 

Additionally, Trane’s heat pump runs on 240 volt while all other electrical systems present in the house will be on 110 volt. Our alternate heating strategy is to utilize an electric radiant heating panel by local Bellingham company and project sponsor, Heating Green. Their Cove Heater will run on 110 and will be more discreet, albeit less powerful than Trane’s heat pump. All of this talk about voltage is important because we intend to install a Tesla Powerwall that will only support 110 volt, therefore if we can have a fully functional house on 110 volt then our house could feasibly operate on battery storage. Exciting, huh?

Heating Green – Cove Heater

 

It must be mentioned that regardless of how we heat our buildings, the warmth of a space relies mostly on how well-sealed the building’s envelope was designed. If the windows are thin, the heat will escape. If the walls are poorly insulated, the heat will escape. If you don’t shut the door the heat will escape! (Sorry, mom.) So whether it be the hyper efficient heat pump from Trane, or the humble but mighty Cove Heater from Heating Green, we will be nice and cozy in our tiny house this winter.

 

Fall 2019 Update

The school bells have rung, the students have returned, and the tiny house has moved closer to construction. This summer was a blur, but we were able to finalize our building design, connect with more donors, work with Western on siting the house, and even speak with a fellow tiny house researcher from across the nation.

This summer, ZeNETH also had to say good-bye to a number of amazing student leaders including Olivia Dingus and Aisaya Corbray. Olivia’s ability to strategize and navigate the University’s systems was critical to our success – the University of Wisconsin Madison is now lucky enough to have her as an economics graduate student. Aisaya, our resident urban planner, stayed on ZeNETH over the summer to coordinate and manage the project and the many relationships we’ve cultivated across the region. Her dedication to housing solutions will now be felt by the Low Income Housing Institute  where she will continue to advocate for equitable housing.

Since the start of this project our work has held onto the mission of being available to all through open-sourcing. We wanted to design something that others could learn from and repeat for their own needs, and thanks to the incredible Dave Kangas at A1DesignBuild we have achieved something quite worthy of imitation. The full building plans for our net-zero energy tiny house are available for free on A1’s site, and on our Design page. Drool away, building nerds.

A1DesignBuild. Western Solar. Sanitary Services Company. Silfab. Trane. Foundation Restoration. Our donor list keeps growing and we are progressively humbled by the generosity of these local businesses. When they show up to the table I can tell that they actually care about the work we are embarking on. One aim of ours has been to not create the slickest most high-end tiny house possible, but to create something that is absolutely replicable on personal and commercial scales. However, it just so happens that these local companies do top-notch work and when they come together on one project like ZeNETH a beautiful thing happens: we witness what it’s like when people are inspired to work together and envision a home that reflects our shared values and the potential for our shared future.

Our project is still in need of raising funds to help see us through the siting stage for bringing the tiny house to campus. We have added a donate button to our home page for donors to make a tax-deductible contribution directly to ZeNETH through Western’s Foundation. Those funds will go immediately towards this last leg of our work.

With so much still to say, it appears I will have to write another blog post soon. However, I will leave you with this tantalizing tiny house morsel. Dr Maria Saxton of Virginia Tech reached out to ZeNETH this summer to ask us about our project as she had just completed her doctoral research in, “measuring the ecological footprints of tiny home downsizers”. Amazing, right? I will dedicate an entire post just to Dr Saxton’s work, but for now I will just repost her fancy infographic below (full file at bottom) which helps make a very intriguing point about environmental impact and tiny houses.

Happy Fall all!

Final-Infographic_M.Saxton_July-2019