National Solar Tour 2009
On Oct. 3, 150,000 people are slated to build a new solar landscape for America by joining the nonprofit American Solar Energy Society's 14th Annual National Solar Tour, the world's largest grassroots solar event. You can, too.
The National Solar Tour provides an opportunity for solar-interested citizens in 49 states to view the real-life solar solutions people in their communities are deploying to save money, assert their energy independence and help the environment. Those attending this year's tour will discover a surprisingly diverse solar landscape including solar-powered duplexes, houses, condos even solar-powered schools, farms and businesses.
"After decades of development, solar energy solutions have moved into the mainstream," said Brad Collins, executive director of ASES. "Solar prices are 30%-40% lower than we saw a year ago. State and federal incentives are the richest we've seen, and an evolving consciousness surrounding how solar cuts energy costs, creates green jobs and improves property values is emerging. From Main Street to rural retreats, the National Solar Tour is changing how everyday people view their energy choices. It's a catalyst that's accelerating the use of solar energy and energy-efficient practices across America."
While the bulk of the 235 tours affiliated with the event occur Oct. 3, a few, like those in Alaska, occur on different dates to accommodate inclement weather and other factors.
Here's an exclusive sneak peek at the unconventional ways people and proprietors are showcasing their solar stuff, cutting their energy costs and proving that the benefits of solar energy and its energy-efficiency cousin have not only hit the mainstream, they're here to stay.
Tax Rebates Without the Taxpayer
While local governments are struggling with shrinking tax bases that require cutting costs and services, the County of Boulder is innovating by funding solar energy solutions to offset energy costs, create a cleaner community and save precious taxpayer dollars without cutting services.
Typically, counties don't qualify for the incentives supporting solar installations because they don't pay federal taxes. Realizing the benefits of solar energy usually requires up-front costs of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ineligible for tax incentives, Boulder engaged Bella Energy and Conergy to hammer out a Solar Host Agreement. The agreement identifies private-sector partners to finance solar systems for public agencies like counties and schools. As short-term system owners, these partners collect available incentives, tax credits and depreciation deductions for the installation.
Boulder has successfully deployed 615 kW of solar energy capacity on eight county buildings, while avoiding all of the capital costs. At the same time, county government is guaranteeing its citizens benefit from Recovery Act dollars that are stimulating our Clean Energy Economy. But it hasn't all been easy: At the mercy of Colorado's majestic Rocky Mountains, installers engineered ways for rooftop panels to sustain 130 mph winds while working day and night on icy rooftops to accommodate the quiet needed for everything from court hearings to major elections. Boulder County now produces 6% of the electricity it consumes.
A Solar Powered Organic Orchard
It was simple economics that first compelled Simply Grown's Brett Walton (pictured) to deploy a 27 kW solar carport to power the organic peach orchard he manages in Palisade, Colorado. The 120-panel system offsets 100% of the energy needs of three of his four orchard structures, saving him $3,000 a year. It's also earning the company nearly $150,000 in state rebates and tax incentives.
Designed by Conergy distributor High Noon Solar, the carport features a dual-purpose solar solution that generously produces clean electricity while offering a convenient place to park and store vehicles and farm equipment. It was built and interconnected in fewer than five weeks. Deploying solar energy also avoids 78,000 pounds of carbon emissions each year. It is this bountiful harvest that compels Simply Grown to share their "Beyond Organic" philosophy with other growers. And it is this cornucopia of benefits that leaves Simply Grown owners, employees and customers feeling peachy keen.
Solar Powered Breakfast Cereal
When two-term Iraqi war veteran Jeffrey Owens shifted his energies to fight in the renewable revolution, he had no idea it would motivate him to eat his oatmeal. Organizer of Show Me State-based Show Me Solar, Owens earned his Masters in Physics to contribute to the advancement of solar photovoltaics (PV), the technology Americans invented 50 years ago to harness the sun's energy to produce electricity.
Owens became acquainted with the folks at Quaker Oats when they expressed interest in showcasing the 5 kW PV unit they've installed in Columbia, Mo., as part of this year's National Solar Tour. Performance with purpose is the driving force behind this Pepsico subsidiary's sustainable practices, which demonstrate in true Show Me State fashion that good environmental stewardship and fiscal prudence are no longer mutually exclusive. Solar has earned Quaker Oats a 30% federal tax credit on system costs, $29,000 in incentive payments and is cutting its utility bill by $720 a year.
The October 3 tour date is the one-year anniversary of interconnection -- the day the folks at Quaker Oats started enjoying healthy, emissions-free electricity to power their operations. "I always knew oatmeal was good for the heart," says Owens. "I'm now convinced it's also good for the planet."
Read more about how Jeffrey Owens' solar revolution started in Iraq.
Going Solar Rogue in Oil-Rich Alaska
The rich state incentives that drive deployment of solar energy solutions in the majority of America's lower 49 don't exist in Alaska, whose oil-rich resources are legendary. But that hasn't dampened Alaskans' laudable enthusiasm for the power of solar energy. If sticking with traditional fossil fuel-fed energy sources is the norm, Alaskans are going rogue over the benefits of solar technology. "Alaskans are forging ahead despite the fact that they don't have the net metering and state cash rebates available in many other states," noted Phil St. John, MD, aka Dr. Phil (no, not that Dr. Phil), who this past August helped coordinate the inaugural Alaska Solar Tour. Due to projected weather patterns and limited sunshine Alaska was the first in the line-up of this year's National Solar Tour activities.
Dr. Phil said he was delighted with the sheer number of site hosts -- and the groundswell of Alaskans who participated in the tour. "We expected a handful of tour site hosts, and ended up with 30 who accommodated nearly 500 Alaskans across a 1,200 mile geographic area. Tours ran from Nome to Homer!" boasted St. John, who himself lives on an island. Dr. Phil says it is solar's value as an independent, cost-cutting energy source that attracted about half the tour's participants. "One community outside of Wasilla was offered a $250,000 state grant to support interconnection," he noted. "Considering all the public goods charges, taxes and related costs associated with being attached to a utility, they opted to stick with their independent resources. About 50% of the tour sites featured folks who deployed solar and wind turbines and were living comfortably off the grid. The bulk of them focused on solar thermal technologies, which is usually more cost-effective and tends to have a faster payback than solar electric technologies."
Dr. Phil lives on an island in the Cook Inlet. He moved to Alaska nine years ago after falling in love with it while on a fishing trip with his son. He had been practicing medicine in solar bellwether California for 20 years. "What my fellow Alaskans have proven here is that solar technology is viable -- even when you can see Russia from your house."
The Solar Funeral (A Higher Calling in New Jersey)
The spirit of solar is alive and well at Prout's Funeral Home in Verona, N.J. And it's manifested not only in the 25.6 kW of solar energy third-generation proprietor Robert Prout employs to power his home and offices, but in
- the classes he regularly holds to teach future generations about the benefits of sustainable energy,
- his willingness to open his doors to those attending the American Solar Energy Society's National Solar Tour,
- the way he's incorporated his love of ecology into his business for green funerals and natural burials, and
- the hurdles he's cleared to creatively introduce his second solar PV system, despite rigorous opposition.
Prout's quest to be among the first solar powered funeral homes began in earnest in 2004, when he heard New Jersey was entering into a clean energy program. By 2005, he had 114 roof-mounted PV panels (17.4 kW) saving him $600 and $800 a month on his electric bill. "Solar installations in the state have gone from next to nothing to over 4,000. Incentives have jump-started the solar industry, created green sector jobs, reduced grid demand and they're helping the environment," he said. "In my opinion, it's one of the few government programs that really works."
The technology worked so well he almost immediately applied for a second phase, which he'd slated for a parking lot adjacent to his business. The plan called for a carport type structure that, he found out, might need Zoning Authority approvals. Not wanting to embark into a maze of regulatory boards, the enthusiastic Prout suggested an alternative. Months back, he'd cleared shrubbery on top of a retaining wall and erected a 6-foot tall decorative fence. "It's OK to have a fence on my property, correct?" he asked. "Of course," was the reply. "And I can decorate it any way I please, wouldn't you say?" he continued. "Suppose so," the town responded.
Solar evangelist Bob Prout then proceeded to "decorate" his south-facing fence with 36 additional panels -- another 8.2 kW of solar energy. "It's one of those solutions where everyone wins." And Robert Prout, his family and his funeral home are about 98% independent of the grid.
Strip Mall Solar
The favorite new topping for green business consultant Art Krebs's Dunkin Donuts fare isn't maple or chocolate sprinkles it's a new kind of glaze called solar photovoltaics (PV). And it is the integrated equation of 8.9kW of electricity-generating solar panels, tankless hot water systems, automatic faucets, light switches and LED lot-lights that ensure those who frequent the Dunkin Donuts shops owned by Roger Deslauriers and Richard Demers (clients of Krebs' brother-in-law) are enjoying one green cup of joe.
The Deslauriers engaged National Solar Tour organizer Krebs and his company Construction Art to identify the fastest and most effective ways to cut energy consumption and reduce their carbon footprint. They wanted to not only reduce their operational costs, but share the benefits of their investments with their customers. Tax credits, rebates and Krebs's energy saving strategies helped them recoup approximately 70% of their initial investment. The solar energy solution itself has offset 10% of the store's overall energy consumption.
The rewarding feedback the men are receiving from this project has inspired them to introduce similar solutions at other Dunkin Donuts. And the solar solution on its rooftop makes this quaint little shop the tucked away the cozy Massachusetts community of South Main Attleboro the nation's first quick-service restaurant to utilize solar energy to cut its costs. In less than 60 days, the men's Attleboro and two sister stores have generated enough energy to power 40 houses for a day and reduce their carbon footprint by 4,555 pounds of CO2. They've also offset emissions equivalent to driving a car for 159 consecutive days. Their solar energy systems alone will reduce 2,221,800 lbs. of CO2 equivalent to energy to power 6000 houses for a day, and reduce pollution equivalent to driving a car for over 4,608,350 miles. In addition, the site's new water control system will save approximately 36,792 gallons each year.
"These results are the direct effect from only three average size Dunkin Donuts stores," said Krebs. "Imagine how much more we could achieve if the hundreds of thousands of quick-service restaurants in the country got on board. That is our goal -- it dovetails with the National Solar Tour's Goal of inspiring people to explore their available options to start helping the environment, while serving up a little green for their wallets."
Seeing the Solar through the Trees in Sequoia National Park
When Tom and Lisa McGinnis moved into the foothills of Sequoia National Park eight years ago, they knew they wanted to build a life for themselves that would efficiently integrate them into the natural landscape with little environmental fallout. When it came time to build their dream home 2 1/2 years ago, they worked to design a home that would be as efficient as possible, while providing them with a quality of life that served as a testimonial to the beauty surrounding them.
First, they wanted no trees felled in the process of building their home; instead the trees' shade, the cool earth and an evaporative swamp cooler provide a natural cooling system that keeps the McGinnis' 1,200-square foot home comfortable even in triple-digit heat. Constructed mainly of ICFs (Insulating Concrete Forms) -- hollowed-out I-beams filled with thick bats of insulation -- the house requires 44% less energy to heat and 32% less energy to cool than comparable frame houses. Passive solar invites southern sunlight, while an insulated slab floor keeps them warm and toasty. The benefit? Low heating, cooling and lighting costs.
Taking advantage of a rare sunny patch under the forest canopy, they installed a solar-PV system to replace their propane water heater. "The difference," says Tom, "is remarkable. There's virtually no real cost to heat the house." He's eyeing one other sunny spot on the rooftop -- a project for another year.
McGinnis says it feels good to be living in a home that's not emitting the volume of greenhouse gasses of the typical household, particularly given that the air quality in the valley in which they live is known to suffer. "One thing we'd like people to take away from the tour is that people do have choices. We built this home ourselves. Initiatives like the National Solar Tour demonstrate that people don't have to get huge loans to build the house of their dreams. If they consult books and experts, they can build homes fairly inexpensively and get exactly what they want."
A Very Modern One-Room Schoolhouse
When a raging fire devastated a Columbia, Mo., elementary school trailer, its students had nowhere to turn. The ABCs of recovery for this demoralized population started with an Architect with knowledge in sustainability -- and an interest in sharing it. The architect, Nick Peckham of Peckham and Wright Architects, saw designing a traditional one-room schoolhouse using today's efficient green building standards as the perfect way to pay homage to the community that had sustained his career for 30 years, while inspiring future generations with his sustainability insights. He rallied local Businesses from around the county to donate the majority of materials -- and labor -- to build this exciting new learning center, which would cost about $250,000. And then he engaged the Community to support the effort. Insurance proceeds for the dilapidated trailer would amount to a mere $30,000 -- a fraction of the cost to rebuild. This broad-brush community effort transformed a local tragedy into an inspirational national treasure. Today, Missouri's Eco-Schoolhouse serves as a vibrant educational beacon for the students it serves and a model of what learning the ABCs can do for districts across the nation.
Here's what makes it so efficient: Structural insulated panels were used to create a very tight building envelope, which minimizes the energy required to heat and cool the building. Nearly 97% of the construction waste from this project was recycled. Stormwater runoff from the roof is captured in rain barrels, which is then used to water the landscape of native Missouri plants. And compost bins stand at the ready to devour cafeteria debris.
The ceiling is populated with reflective solar "sun tunnels" to reflect natural daylight (passive solar), and the lighting is supplemented with high-efficiency florescent fixtures, each of which can be independently controlled. The building's prescription for energy efficiency allows the 10 rooftop solar photovoltaic panels on the roof to meet nearly all the schoolhouse's energy demands. On most days, the 2.2-kW system produces enough energy to supply all of the Eco-Schoolhouse's needs. The system is tied into the grid, so at night or on dark, cloudy days, electricity can be pulled from the grid like any other building; conversely, on sunny days, excess electricity flows back onto the grid for use by other buildings.
The structure has earned LEED-Platinum certification, the pinnacle of building efficiency. The obstacles overcome -- and the milestones achieved -- in this community endeavor make for one Grade A lesson plan.