Zero-Energy Capable Mini-City in Austin, Texas Keeps Costs Low

Source: Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT
A vegetable garden stands outside a home being built in Whisper Valley near Austin, Texas.

A mini-city 20 minutes from downtown Austin, Texas is taking energy efficiency to new heights—and new low costs.

A new zero-energy-capable community, Whisper Valley just won Green Home Builder's 2017 Community of the Year for its fine amenities, ample natural spaces, access to retail, and the powerful smart infrastructure and advanced energy technologies that power its homes and businesses.

All of the 7,500 homes built in Whisper Valley are almost identical. They feature 5 kW solar on the roofs, Google Fiber internet, and unique temperature regulation with smart thermostats. Each home is connected to a central geothermal pumping system, moving hot air from the ground into homes in the winter and sucking heat out of the house and back in the ground in the summer. Excess heat provides for the hot water systems as well. Due to these technologies, home owners have the potential to obtain net-zero energy output, producing as much energy with their home as they consume.

In the construction of Whisper Valley, detailed pre-planning and stakeholder education were crucial to success and cost management. It took Whisper Valley almost a decade to start building after the community’s initial approval of their construction plans due to the time it took to educate residents about geothermal energy. Then, it took even more time to permit and approve the geothermal infrastructure.

Normally, it costs tens of thousands to install smart energy infrastructure on a home, including geothermal, solar, and fiber internet technology. Whisper Valley’s builders took care to minimize these up-front marginal costs. For example, the Google Fiber line was laid at the same time as boreholes were drilled for the geothermal energy. This approach mimics construction practices in many areas of Europe, where renewable energy installations come standard with many new homes.

These measures also mean that homeowners avoid taking on excessive costs in the purchase of the home. Whisper Valley homes start at a base price of $190,000, compared to average regional home prices in the $300,000s. Each resident pays for their geothermal energy just like a utility, over the course of 20 years.

NASEO members and staff had the privilege of touring Whisper Valley at our Central Regional Meeting in Austin in May 2018. Whisper Valley will be featured at NASEO’s 2018 Annual Meeting in Detroit, Michigan. To learn more about this city, check out This Old House’s feature on Whisper Valley below, and register for our Annual Meeting.