Sea levels are inching up. Flood days are increasing. The threat of stronger, more powerful storms looms over us. The effects of climate change have never been more apparent in South Florida. Despite a governor who refuses to utter the C-words, Floridians are more conscious about their carbon footprint than ever before. They’re buying more fuel-efficient cars, eating more locally sourced food, and remembering to turn the lights off when they leave a room. But it seems that no one is capitalizing off the Sunshine State’s most obvious natural resource: solar power.
One Fort Lauderdale-based developer wants to change that. Stellar Homes Group recently announced plans to make solar panels standard with all new homes. It would be the first South Florida developer to do so. The company's homes are designed with a long list of amenities geared to reduce a household’s carbon footprint and lower electricity bills by as much as $40 a month on a 4,000-square-foot home. Stellar Homes is already building homes in Boca Raton, Davie, and Sailboat Bend that could be ready by as early as this October.
“We had to lead the way because someone had to do it, and no one was stepping up,” says Larry Baum, managing director at Stellar Homes Group. “We just want to make sure we grow as a region implementing these green practices.”
Solar energy is tricky in Florida. Our state ranks third in the nation in rooftop solar energy potential, but currently comes in at number 13 in the amount of solar energy generated. Part of the problem is the notion that solar panels are only for the wealthy or for people who can afford thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Big utility companies like Florida Power & Light are also not making it easy, since current legislation requires all solar energy to be sold exclusively from them, creating massive obstacles in cost and installation options. In other states, like California, companies lease rooftop solar equipment to homeowners and bill users monthly, allowing homeowners to use solar energy for little or no money down.
Stellar Homes Group launched in 2009. Vice president Tony Valle credits Baum with its environmentally friendly vision. “It took us just six months to feel comfortable with understanding the solar panels themselves,” Baum says.
Each new home by Stellar Homes Group will come with a solar panel from Orlando-based Solar Ray company. The panels are photovoltaic (meaning they convert solar energy into electricity current) and cost as much as $9,160 to $16,128 per home. But Stellar Homes Group made the decision to install them into the homes without raising prices, even including a 30-year warranty on them.
“For most builders, there's an average [profit] margin that’s roughly 26 to 32 percent,” Valle explains. “We decided that it’s OK if we lower ours to 21 to 24 percent. We’re still making money; we’re doing right by the consumer and the environment and leading the way in the green market in South Florida.”
The builders say their homes are designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible. They’re designed with three times the insulation of most other homes to lock air conditioning in. Hybrid water heaters are 70 percent more efficient than regular ones. The houses are constructed and windows designed in ways to maximize natural light with the goal of keeping users from turning on lights in the middle of the day. Instead of incandescent bulbs, homes come with LED lighting that lasts three times longer. Only native species that require little water are planted in yards.
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“At the end of the day, we have to be conscious of our impact on the environment,” Baum says. “We felt that there had to be a way to give these homes more value and the consumer more value to build a project that is good for all of us.”
So far, Valle and Baum report buyers are excited about their new homes. The Velero project in Sailboat Bend is expected to be finished in October 2016. Homes start in the low $800,000s. The developments at Cavalia Estates in Davie and Boca Villas in Boca Raton should be finished by January 2017.
In the future, Valle and Baum are looking at ways to make communities more green by building solar clubhouses and solar-powered irrigation systems.
“When we tell people about our work, we see them light up,” Valle says. “There’s a strong demand for this, and we’re excited to be the first to do this.”