If you’re looking for a sign as to how far the solar energy industry has come in recent years, look no further than Gilbert, Arizona, a town in the Phoenix area that’s aiming to become known for its solar-powered, energy-efficient communities. Last week, Gilbert became home to the Meritage Green Homes community, the first community in the United States whose standard home is 80 percent more energy efficient than the national average.

The secret behind this new community is Echo, a new solar energy solution system that its maker, PVT Solar, claims is more efficient than any other stand-alone solar electric or solar photovoltaic (PV) system out there. According to PVT, the technology produces double the energy of conventional systems, providing enough energy for residents to wash their clothes, bathe and home heating and cooling systems.

The way Echo operates is relatively simple. Whereas most standard PV panels generate electricity from only a small fraction of the sun’s energy and leave the heat unused, Echo sucks up the sun’s thermal energy too, using a computerized fan to move the hot air from underneath the solar panels and applying it toward useful ends, like heating domestic water.

Meritage Homes has built its reputation on building energy-efficient homes. Since 2001, each of the company’s homes has exceeded ENERGY STAR guidelines. Notably, each of the company’s new Arizona solar homes in Gilbert will be tested and certified by ResNET-certified energy auditors.

Gordon Handelsman, President of PVT Solar, had the following to say about the new homes in Lyon’s Gate, the private community in Gilbert, where the new homes are located:

Meritage Homes is truly a leader in deploying echo solar power systems in their new Lyon’s Gate community.  They’re delivering what  consumers want in a new home – beautiful styling, quality construction, economic savings and ecological  stewardship.

The best part? Buyers won’t necessarily have to shell out a fortune to move in: some models are priced at starting under $180,000. Chairman and CEO of Meritage Homes, Steven Hilton, attributes the homes’ attractive pricing to local collaborative efforts:

“This community is the result of cooperation between Meritage and dozens of our partners like GE, PVT Solar, DEMILEC, SRP (Salt River Project) and the Town of Gilbert.” Hilton said. “Only through our coordinated efforts were we able to develop homes at these prices with all of these features included. We intend to expand the use of these features in our other communities and work toward their greater adoption across the industry.”