One couple’s starter home in a connected community in California shows how smart energy powered by smart home technology could be the future of affordable, energy-independent living.
Justine Yotti-Conrique and Michael Conrique just bought their first home together. The pretty, Spanish-style four-bedroom house in the planned community of Shadow Mountain is ideal for the young couple and their border doodle, Ziggy. Shadow Mountain is just one of many similar-looking communities popping up all over this fast-growing slice of Southern California desert, where young professionals like the Conriques are flocking thanks to remote work options and high prices along the coast.
But behind the home’s stucco walls and under its terracotta tiled roof lies a new breed of smart, energy-efficient home. One that’s part of California’s first planned smart, solar-powered residential microgrid community.
The home isn’t smart because there’s a robot vacuum patrolling the halls or a video doorbell surveilling the entryway. Justine and Michael’s home is built smart. A surprisingly small number of solar panels on the roof soak up the sun in the desert landscape of the city of Menifee, 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles, funneling power into the tightly designed building envelope.
Here, a 13-kilowatt hour home battery sits beside a smart load panel that controls every electrical appliance in the home, from the hybrid electric heat-pump water heater and high-efficiency heat pump HVAC system — both Wi-Fi enabled to share data — to the light switches, EnergyStar fridge, and energy-efficient induction cooktop.
This home is smart because it can proactively respond to and manage its energy use. Using software algorithms, the Schneider load center intelligently determines where to best draw power from — the SunPower solar panels, the battery, or the grid. It then makes recommendations the Conriques can use to set automations that change power sources or reduce energy use when prices and demand spike. But yes, they can still control the thermostat with their voice.
It’s not just Michael and Justine’s house that’s built smart. It’s their neighbors’ homes, too. The 43 new residences in the new KB Home-built Shadow Mountain community and the 176 more that are planned are all-electric, solar-powered smart homes. By next year they will be connected to a 2.3 megawatt-hour community battery, sending any excess energy their panels generate to the common power source and creating a community microgrid.
When the power goes down, the microgrid will kick in, isolating all 219 homes from the grid and keeping their essential functions up and running. The homes will draw first from their own battery (and potentially their EV) and then from the community battery.
“When the system hits a potential steady state, they can ride a power outage for days, if not in perpetuity, with proper solar production,” explains Brad Wills of Schneider Electric, manufacturers of the home’s smart load panel, the community’s microgrid components, and the software that runs the system.
“As a young couple, we’re interested in social networks, and we’ve found a different kind of social network here, one where we share our power together,” says Michael, who met Justine 10 years ago while they were both working at The Cheesecake Factory. “With the microgrid, you feel a different kind of reliance on your neighbor, not just because you’re all buying into this new program together but because we’re buying into the future here. This is the state of the art.”
State-of-the-art usually translates to “extremely expensive,” but Justine and Michael’s four-bed, 2,600-square-foot home cost $590,000. If you aren’t familiar with Southern California real estate, that is relatively inexpensive for a single-family home before you factor in that it’s designed only to use as much energy as it produces, meaning no or low monthly electrical bills.
“Our first electrical bill was $30, and that was before the solar panels had been hooked up,” says Justine. “The home was shockingly affordable for Southern California. A similar-sized home in Chino Hills where I grew up goes for close to a million.” Instead, they spent nearly half the price for a new, state-of-the-art home, albeit in a significantly more affordable, more rural area of the state — Menifee wasn’t even a city until 2008.
Energy independence is about more than just money; it also provides an extra layer of resiliency in a turbulent time in the West, where wildfires and their threat mean you never know when the lights may go out. “We experienced so many power outages when we were renting in La Verne that we really liked the idea of having a Plan B,” says Justine.
A Plan B is at the heart of the Shadow Mountain experiment. Building a fully smart, connected home like those in Shadow Mountain requires a significant upfront investment from a homeowner, one that even negligible energy bills over many years could struggle to cancel out. Shadow Mountain is an attempt to show how we can build smarter and more energy-efficient homes that more people can afford.
“Honestly, if all the companies involved in this were doing it solely for commercial reasons, it wouldn’t happen,” says Wills. “We’re doing this to learn, to find how do you move away from this being a very customized, very heavily engineered solution, to how we can design this better so that it’s microgrid in a box.”
Developed as a partnership between SunPower, KB Home, University of California, Irvine, Schneider Electric, Southern California Edison, Kia America, and the US Department of Energy, Shadow Mountain is designed to be a blueprint for how we can build better, smarter communities in the future.
The homes are targeted at first-time home buyers, and cutting the costs associated with smart homes and solar power was the main goal. By building out one community with this integrated technology, the hope is to learn how to do this more efficiently moving forward.
“We want to use this as a platform to demonstrate that we don’t have to wait 20 more years for the technology to help us build resilient homes,” Dan Bridleman, senior vice president at KB Home, told me. “It’s here; we just have to make sure it’s affordable.”
A $6.65 million grant from the DOE helped kick-start the project, covering the cost of the community battery — which should be installed later this year and up and running early next year. It also reduced costs associated with getting each home to Department of Energy Zero Energy Ready Home standards, including the home battery, which runs around $10,000.
The tight building envelope required for the ZERH standard means the homes require a solar system around half the size of a similar standard construction home. Overall each home is designed to cut average energy use by up to 40 percent, according to Bridleman.
A recent DOE study estimated that by 2030, grid-interactive efficient buildings like those at Shadow Mountain could save up to $18 billion per year in power system costs and cut 80 million tons of carbon emissions annually.
Every home here can act as a virtual power plant, both by sending electricity back to the grid during spikes in demand and by allowing SoCal Edison to island the entire community off of the grid if needed.
The community is also trialing high-output vehicle-to-home and vehicle-to-grid functions. Every home is prewired for an EV charger, but 10 homes will have a Wallbox Quasar 2, and the homeowner can lease a Kia EV6, one of the few cars in the US capable of bidirectional charging.
The Quasar 2 is a bidirectional charger that can use the energy stored in the car’s battery to power the home or the grid. “The battery in the home has about 13 kWh in it, but a car can bring you somewhere closer to 100 kWh,” says Bridleman.
Over three years, both the EV trial and the community as a whole will be studied by the Advanced Power and Energy Program at UC Irvine to evaluate the microgrid and research ways to improve the technologies for future residential use.
Living in the future
Justine and Michael didn’t set out to buy a smart home; they were just looking for their first home. “We didn’t know what the microgrid was until we explored this area, but we like to think of ourselves as looking towards the future generations, even our own,” says Michael (for now, border doodle Ziggy is their only child).
The relative affordability of the Shadow Mountain option, plus the promise of energy independence, made it an easy choice. “It really seemed too good to be true,” says Justine. Now, five weeks into their smart home journey, they’re hooked.
“We’ve had a few smart bulbs and an Echo Dot in the past, but we’ve never had everything — even our home appliances — connected,” says Justine. It’s been eye-opening for the couple. “We have so much more control over and insight into our home environment.”
From turning lights on and controlling the HVAC with their phone and their voice to actually understanding what their home is doing on a daily basis. “Seeing which appliances draw the most power, and then assessing if that appliance needs to be taking that much power or how we can adjust it, feels pretty cool. It’s a different layer of insight,” says Michael.
While they have to use multiple apps to control everything in their home — the Schneider Wiser Energy app for the power, the SunPower app for the solar, the Ecobee app for the HVAC — the systems are interconnected, working behind the scenes to reduce energy use. “We’ve learned if you make it too complex for a homeowner, they won’t use it,” says Bridleman. Here, everything is automated with software; the app controls are merely for setting the automations up and daily convenience.
That’s part of what makes this a smart home of the future. It’s not about surface-level changes — sticking a smart thermostat on an aging HVAC system so that you can crank up the AC with a voice command. It’s about making the home’s infrastructure smart. And it’s not limited to new construction.
While it’s easier to build smart from the start, much of the tech powering Shadow Mountain homes can be retrofitted into existing homes. And there are other companies innovating here, too. A new electrical panel from smart energy company SPAN allows for automatic load management, time-of-use scheduling, and other energy management features. But it costs $4,500. A more affordable option is to retrofit breakers into existing panels. Schneider is developing individual smart breakers that can be swapped into existing Schneider panels, which Wills says are in 25 percent of US homes.
Smart home company Savant makes individual smart power modules that can be retrofitted into all major electrical panels, allowing for energy monitoring and critical load management. Then there’s the $300 Sense Home Energy monitor that clips into any existing panel and provides insights into how your home uses energy, similar to those Michael and Justine receive in their state-of-the-art starter home.
Today, smart electrification of existing homes is still a significantly more expensive proposition than in new builds. But with more government incentives — including new tax credits for upgrading your home’s electrical panel and wiring that arrived this year with the Inflation Reduction Act — it’s a better proposition than it once was.
With rising energy costs, smart power in a home could soon become a necessity rather than a luxury. “At some point, it will be that a builder can’t sell a home if it doesn’t have a smart, solar, microgrid component to it,” says Schneider’s Wills. “The same for existing homeowners. It will be like trying to sell a car without power windows.”