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Nicor Gas and Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity break ground on the first community designed to achieve net zero

On a sunny June morning, 150 representatives from Nicor Gas, Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity, government officials and community partners gathered at a wooded lot in Aurora, Illinois, to celebrate the culmination of three years of collaboration, innovation and planning.

This is the start of Nicor Gas and Southern Company Gas’ first Smart NeighborhoodTM community – a first-of-its-kind partnership between a natural gas utility and Habitat for Humanity that will provide 17 energy efficient and low-cost homes for low-income families.

“I’ve been waiting for this day for a very long time,” said Jenn R., a single mother and one of the Aurora residents selected for the project. “For me it means peace of mind. For the kids – they’ll all have their own bedrooms again. Right now, I’m sharing a bedroom with my daughter because that’s what we could afford.”

Residents are chosen through an application process by the Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity. Each homeowner is responsible for putting in 500 hours of sweat equity into their home and community as well as home upkeep. Jenn R. has already met some of her new neighbors working on other Habitat home builds. “This is an adopted family that you’re making through this whole process,” she added.

“We have a shared mission to bring affordable, equitable housing where homeowners’ mortgages and energy bills are very manageable,” said Meena Beyers, vice president of Community and Business Development at Nicor Gas.

The leading-edge homes will feature smart combinations of natural gas, electricity and renewable technologies, Beyers said, adding, “Working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL ), we modeled different technologies and the way they worked together, and we found not only a path to net zero, but also a path that is the most affordable and lowest cost to build and to maintain.”

Each technology-enhanced home will be served with clean, safe, reliable and affordable natural gas service and supplemented by rooftop solar installations, high-efficiency building envelopes and in-home battery energy storage. These homes have been designed to achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions, which refers to the balancing of greenhouse gas emissions, where the home saves more carbon dioxide emissions than consumers produce to power, heat and cool the home on an annual basis. The technology will reduce each families’ carbon footprint, but more importantly, improve their quality of life.

“Home ownership changes lives for generations,” added Beyers. “It’s the way families build generational wealth and lift themselves out of poverty. It’s not just getting the home, but its owning the home and living in that home. Energy plays a critical part in that.”

Sarah Brachle Wanger, CEO of Chicagoland Habitat for Humanity agrees.

“We are truly looking at this as a pilot partnership. Cost is always a factor, and we need to be able to produce affordable homes. As these technologies become more common, we can bring pricing down. Habitat has always built energy efficient homes, and this just takes us to the next level.”

The pilot will provide valuable data used to evaluate other opportunities around Illinois. State Representative Matt Hanson is excited to see how the Smart Neighborhood concept can used for other vulnerable groups.

“Can this be the model for senior living and for those with mobility issues?” Hanson wondered. “There are so many ways to build out from this cutting-edge project.”