About 150 people a day move to Austin, Texas, and developers have looked eastward to give these new residents proper housing. East of the city are highways and undeveloped land — forest, rolling green hills and wildlife sanctuaries. But emerging from this land is a 7,500-home, master-planned community called Whisper Valley.
It will be comprised of seven villages that will be built in phases on plots of more than 2,000 acres of Texas land, with sections designated for residential and mixed-use homes as well as planned retail spaces. Shared spaces like a wellness center, swimming pool, organic gardens and 700 acres of open space will also be available to Whisper Valley residents. There will even be a middle and elementary school in the development.
Whisper Valley is a reported $2 billion, 15-year project that broke ground in July 2017. What makes it remarkable is not only the sheer number of houses being built, but that all of them are capable of zero carbon output.
“This project is massive,” said Steve Elmore, VP of business development at Francis Solar, the company that will install solar on all Whisper Valley homes. “There are home builders that offer standard solar, sure, but 7,500 master-planned homes is massive. This project is in Texas. When it comes to solar markets, Texas is never on anyone’s mind. But there’s incredibly low-cost electricity here in Texas and most of the south.”
The state lacks subsidies for solar, but the developer can promise some initial ROI through the federal investment tax credit for early home buyers.
When completed, the solar arrays on the homes here will add up to a combined output of 37.5 MW. Along with solar PV, each home will use geothermal energy.
If Whisper Valley homeowners practice proper energy usage, they’ll have a lower electric bill compared to other homes built at around the same time. In addition to renewable energy, the houses are pre-wired for electric vehicle charging stations, Google Fiber high-speed internet and Nest security systems. Prices for a home in Whisper Valley start in the low $200,000s and go up from there, and the fees for the solar and geothermal systems are packed into a single mortgage.
Francis Solar is tackling the thousands of solar home installations over nearly a decade with a flexible approach, out of necessity, and in-house management software. The program tracks each active and completed install down to what components were deployed and includes pictures of progress, too.
“I can pick one [home] randomly that’s in construction right now and I can see right here that the flashings are completed,” Elmore said. “I have every single data point about every single home. I could tell you exactly how many kilowatt hours it will produce, how many panels on which group and what type of rail arrangements. I have photos of every single step that’s been taken.”
Francis Solar has 80 different rooftop installation designs that can apply to a single floor plan of a Whisper Valley home. With the layout options available to buyers, and interfacing with five different home builders, the resulting number of possible floor plans is in the hundreds. So, keeping component counts down and working with proven products is necessary to maintain uniform kilowatt output per home and streamline installations, Elmore said.
“There’s a lot of ideas of the week out there in terms of racking. That’s where a lot of innovation is trying to happen, and maybe on a boutique basis, a lot of that is very interesting,” he said. “But in a community that has to be built consistently and at a low cost and a high standard and high warranty over the next decade, that’s totally different. At the risk of being a little cheesy here, it’s the difference between a pop song and The Beatles, and we kind of needed The Beatles here.”
The installer formed a product partnership with Quick Mount PV and is using its QRail and L-Mount mounting and racking systems on all homes. The mounting and racking system has sold over 14 million units with a roof flashing that has no reports of leaks and has a 25-year warranty, which were big selling points for Francis.
“We think about the crews that Francis Solar puts on the roof — how they have to manage the project — and in this case put thousands of shingle mounts on the roof, and how to do it quickly while also making sure that they’re installed correctly,” said Yann Brandt, CEO of Quick Mount PV. “That’s a never-ending process for us.”
The arrays also include Canadian Solar CS6K 275-watt modules, Fronius inverters and Tigo Energy optimizers. Each array is energy storage- and EV-charger-compatible.
As the Whisper Valley project progresses, construction will begin on multi-family units, and the developer is considering using larger, shared PV systems to help power them.
“We feel like we’ve grasped the model from the single-family perspective,” said Douglas Gilliland, president of project developer Taurus of Texas, a branch of Taurus Investment Holdings. “Now we’re looking at multi-family and right behind that will be designing our first village of retail services and commercial services and we’ll be bringing the same commitment to green investment to that as well. The entire community will embrace that lifestyle on that technology.”
Gilliland said the developer took inspiration from the California legislation mandating all new homes be built with solar power.
“The real estate industry needs to keep evolving. We’re stewards of the land. We’re also the agent of change inside cities,” Gilliland said.
If successful, the Whisper Valley model could be the beginning of a trend toward net-zero homebuilding, with or without a state mandate.