Going green was the only option for Ruth Pittard

Pam King
Special to The Black Mountain News

There was no question that Ruth Pittard's new home in Black Mountain would be energy efficient.

“I’ve wanted a home that was environmentally friendly since high school, but hadn’t had the opportunity to build a house before," she said recently. "Really, I had given up on having a house like this. But then because of an inheritance, I could make my dream come true.”

Ruth Pittard's house has solar panels, and her yard is mulched to save water

Initially Pittard considered building a “tiny house” of only 200 square feet.  But in Black Mountain, tiny houses are considered recreational vehicles because they generally sit on wheels and, as such, are not permitted as residences.

When Pittard found a small lot in a developing neighborhood, she expanded her plans to 600 square feet. She worked with her neighbor, Josh Scala of Green Source Construction Management, to create a home that is "green built." Only 1,215 houses in North Carolina can claim Green Built NC program certification, though another 119 are in progress.

Locally, the Green Built NC certification is awarded by the Western North Carolina Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization that works to educate and transform the building industry.  The features that WNCGBC looks for in certification include water efficiency, Energy Star appliances, nontoxic indoor finishes, efficient heating and cooling equipment, high-efficiency windows and insulation and the use of durable, local and recycled materials.

For the homeowner, benefits of a Green Built home include lower energy bills, increased market value, and a healthier indoor environment. The solar panels on Pittard’s house produce so much energy that she sends the surplus back to Duke Energy.

Pittard took advantage of local incentives provided by the town of Black Mountain to encourage energy-efficient, high-performance and sustainable building practices.  These incentives include a 50 percent rebate of up to $500 for construction projects that meet the guidelines of the WNC Green Building Council. (Black Mountain and Asheville are the only two municipalities in Buncombe County to offer such incentives.)

A small, "green" home that was energy efficient was all that Ruth Pittard ever wanted.

Duke Energy provided other incentives for Pittard to consider using energy-saving bulbs, appliances and construction practices. She obtained a state tax credit for her solar energy system by moving into her home in December, after which the state's solar tax credit, once the nation's most generous at up to 35 percent of new solar panel installation, was no longer available.

The federal tax credit she got for using solar power has been extended for one year. She turned down a rebate for using gas in her home because of an aversion to hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking.

The largest component of Pittard’s energy-savings plan is her solar energy system, installed by Sugar Hollow Solar of Fairview.  The company's co-owner and solar craftsman, Phelps Clarke, said there is a small market for solar-powered homes in Black Mountain.

Clarke's work in the Black Mountain area has been entirely in new home construction, a segment of the market that “has best weathered the loss of the N.C. tax credit,” he said. Once the federal tax credit is factored in, homeowners who finance a solar system with a 30-year low-interest rate mortgage save right from the start because the monthly solar savings are more than the additional mortgage payment, Clarke said.

“Most people are investing in solar for environmental reasons," he said, "but the reality is that there has to be a decent return on investment in order for most people to be able to afford it. It is already true that solar power is a better deal than a power bill over the long term, but the upfront investment is a lot to take.

"It seems like there is a tipping point where, if solar becomes affordable enough, the market will explode."

The loss of the N.C. tax credit has "definitely impacted" demand, Clarke said. "It's tough out there right now. Our revenue growth will be flat or negative this year, even with expanding into the South Carolina market. That compares to 50 percent growth year-over-year in 2013, '14 and '15. I don't think that we should be complaining, and I do think that the end of the N.C. tax credit unlocked some pent-up demand and that short-term market disruption was inevitable and that perhaps things are already starting to look a bit brighter.

"I do think that subsidies are an important part of government policy and that subsidies are the reason that North Carolina is a leader in solar. As a major growth industry of the future, it's a good industry to be a leader in.”

Pittard couldn’t agree more.  Her energy bill is generally $0, although in the summer it can rise to $1.  She is charged a monthly fee for using the Duke Energy grid to transmit her excess energy. In July, the fee was $11.13.  She believes her investment in energy efficiency has paid off with a comfortable, healthy, and attractive home.

“I wanted to show that you don’t have to suffer to care about our environment,” she said.