- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Bryan Murtha first took an interest in his electric bill when he swapped his two antiquated refrigerators for a new model, dramatically decreasing his monthly fees in the process.

The Owings, Md., resident then bought a water heat exchanger and replaced aging appliances with newer, energy-efficient models.

"Everything we did, we kept seeing drops [in the electric bill]," Mr. Murtha says.

When he turned to solar energy, he sliced his already shredded bills in half once more. Like other homeowners with sleek solar panels on their property, though, Mr. Murtha didn't do it for the money.

Even those residents who invest in solar panels and it is an investment, given their price tag still often need their existing power utility to make their energy ends meet.

That economic reality is a key reason solar energy hasn't become a larger piece of the country's energy picture.

The number of U.S. homes heated primarily by solar energy, according to the census, dropped from 54,536 in 1990 to 47,069 by 2000. Most solar-powered homes today operate in conjunction with existing electric services.

Mr. Murtha, too, still relies on the local power company for some of his power needs.

The roof of his ranch home is dominated by three rows of 20 solar panels. The photovoltaic panels, installed in January 1999, lie flat about 2 inches above the gently pitched roof.

A fraction of solar energy users go "off the grid." They sustain their energy needs completely via the sun. To do so, they need backup batteries to keep the house energized during cloudy weather. Those batteries last about five years and are relatively expensive. Enough batteries to provide three days' energy storage can cost up to $2,000. Often, homeowners who go solar also have propane-powered backup generators for an extra sense of security.


People who turn to solar don't see any extra green for years, considering that installation of a modest solar system can start at $15,000.

A different kind of green, though, is certainly on the minds of solar proponents.

They see solar as a clean resource that lessens dependence on polluting foreign oil, reining in the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

Mr. Murtha says his panels produce "very clean, high-quality" sine wave power from waves that maintain the same kind of consistent frequencies that utility companies manufacture. The clean signals yield electricity indistinguishable from the juice flowing into any other home, he says.

"Some people think we're living in the dark or we're uncomfortable," says Mr. Murtha, who drives a 2000 Ford electric pickup to work and closely monitors his energy expenditures. "I don't believe in excesses."

Solar panels can last up to 40 years and require little maintenance. Solar cells don't have moving parts; their wiring is sealed, and random rain showers provide all the cleaning they need.

"Once a year, I clean the glass, but the film that builds upon them is negligible," says Mr. Murtha, who cut down a tree in his front yard and trimmed another tree's branches to give the panels a clear look at the sun.

Should he decide to sell his house, he says, the panels will add value to his home. If the new owner isn't as intrigued by solar energy as he is, the panels can be removed easily.


Economics, which until now has worked against mass acceptance of solar energy, is slowly swinging in its favor.

The price tag on the average solar cell system is shrinking, and many states offer grants to help homeowners afford the switch to solar. For a state-by-state list of the grants available, go to www.dsireusa.org.

More people are aware of solar energy than ever before, and the events of September 11 have made energy independence a more palatable thought.

Albert Nunez, a certified energy manager with Capital Sun Group Ltd. of Cabin John, describes the industry as still being in its "infant" stage.

That could change in the coming years as technological advances make solar cells more efficient, says Mr. Nunez, whose company does consultant work on solar energy.

A few customers think they can outfox their local power company by installing solar panels. Mr. Nunez quickly sets them straight. Solar energy demands a "long-term investment," he says.

Before his clients embrace solar energy, Mr. Nunez advises them to reduce energy waste in their homes to lower the kilowatts needed.

"That's why you've really got to maximize energy efficiency before you even think about going solar," he says.

BP Solar spokesman Todd Foley, whose firm sells solar components to clients worldwide, says the home market, while still minuscule, is its fastest-growing market. Mr. Foley predicts more people eventually will opt for complete reliance on solar.

"There are people who place a premium on independence. During Y2K, our sales went way up," Mr. Foley says of his company, which has international headquarters in Linthicum, Md. Sales also spiked during last year's energy crisis in California.

The best way to approach solar energy is to do so before your house is built, says Otto Van Geet, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

Mr. Van Geet, who owns a solar-powered home near his office that runs "off the grid," says an environmentally savvy housing contractor will make sure a new home is situated facing south as much as possible.

Education is one factor holding back more solar use, and it's not just on the part of the consumer, Mr. Van Geet says.

"The average contractor does not know enough about solar energy in the home," he says. "When designing a house from scratch, you'd like to have an architect familiar with solar design and sustainable design to start with."


Solar energy often is a better fit for commercial buildings, says Mike Whitcomb, an energy manager with Montgomery College.

In 1997, the college installed photovoltaic cells on the science and humanities buildings on its Germantown campus. Their success led the school to begin installing panels on its Takoma Park health and science building.

However, many homes either don't face south, the direction that maximizes sun exposure, or they lack the necessary roof space to accommodate the photovoltaic cells.

Homeowners who take the solar plunge may have another motive in mind, suggests Silver Spring resident Charlie Garlow, a member of Potomac Region Solar Energy Association, a nonprofit group that supports the development and use of solar energy.

"They have an interest in being the first kid on the block with a new toy," says Mr. Garlow, who drives an electric car and helps PRSEA's annual Tour of Solar Homes to spread the word. "They think of themselves as being high-tech."

Homeowners such as Mr. Murtha were inspired by solar energy's environmental promise as well as its tech appeal.

Mr. Murtha also contends that there is something intrinsically patriotic about going solar.

"It's an American thing to do you can make your energy right here," he says. "I'm trying to get to the point where I make everything I need."

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