It's a Floridian's dream: an electric system that powers the home air conditioner and lights without sending the power bill as high as a car payment.
Enter Paavo Salmi.
The CEO of Planet Green Group plans to break ground Aug. 1 on what he hopes will become a nationwide trend in development when he begins building a 25-unit "net-zero energy" townhouse complex in Dunedin.
The general concept of building homes that produce as much energy as they use isn't new. But most of the other projects around the country have been individual homes with high price tags. Salmi's complex will feature townhomes in the $135,000 to $170,000 range.
"We believe we are on the cutting-edge," Salmi said. "We believe we can bring net-zero homes to the market."
In addition to solar panels, the homes feature foam insulation, specially designed duct work, high-efficiency air conditioners and water heaters, LED lighting and energy management systems that help maximize energy use.
Steven Anderson, a contract marketing and products manager for GE, a partner on the project, said the low prices and townhome style makes the project unique in this country, at least for now.
"They obviously are going above and beyond what most developers do," Anderson said.
The units were first offered for sale to what the builders called "hometown heroes" — police officers, firefighters, nurses, teachers and veterans. Some 600 people responded to an initial marketing pitch and 59 signed up on the priority list to purchase a unit.
The townhouses, at the corner of Martin Luther King and Lorraine Leland Street in Dunedin, will cost home buyers with good credit $5,000 to $7,000 down and $600 to $950 a month before taxes and insurance, the builders said.
Each month, the homeowners will receive an electric bill, but they won't owe anything, as long as they follow basic common sense, Salmi points out.
"If you leave your sliding door open all day, we can't control" your electric costs, he said
The project will be part of a PBS documentary Planet Green Group is developing, called Journey 2 Zero, a series about energy efficiency.
Salmi's company built two net-zero energy single family homes in Pinellas before launching into the Dunedin townhouse project. He said he plans to develop similar townhouse projects in Pinellas and then across the country.
Planet Green Group takes advantage of rebates from Progress Energy Florida for solar and federal tax incentives. But Salmi said the project does not heavily rely on government assistance because he wants to replicate the development across the country rather than make it a one-time project.
"When we got on this journey, we wanted to define and build a business model that is not dependent upon subsidies," Salmi said. "There's going to be a lot of folks who are going to have some skepticism. But we have a business model. We are expecting to make a profit."
Salmi expects enough profit that his foundation pledges $1,000 for scholarships to at-risk youth for each unit sold. He says the development's sponsors are matching the contributions, and he has a goal of generating $400,000 in scholarship money for 100 Pinellas County children.
The city of Dunedin is allowing the complex to use the land in return for a fee of about $12 a month per unit for the next 99 years, similar to other economic development projects. The fee is wrapped into the projected mortgage cost to each individual owner. After 99 years, the debt is released.
The project will also use solar products from Algatec Solar AG, a major European solar manufacturer that includes German businessmen who are looking to set up a manufacturing operation in St. Petersburg.
"This is their initial project, hopefully of many, which will justify building a factory here," said Mario Farias, of the Farias Marketing Group, which is providing consulting for the project.
With the groundbreaking ceremony set for Aug. 1, Salmi said his company expects the first homeowners to move in during the first quarter of 2013.
"Dunedin really prides itself on being a kind of environmental leader," said Mayor Dave Eggers, who plans to attend the groundbreaking ceremony. "This fits right into the kind of landscape here."
Eggers said the price of the housing coupled with the electricity saving benefits are particularly attractive to him.
"There's a whole lot of folks in our economy that are looking for places to live," Eggers said. "Firefighters, our sheriffs, our teachers. This gives them great opportunity."
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332.