- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

When Minnesota high school teacher Jason Edens was teaching social studies, he realized the energy-assistance program that helps disadvantaged families pay their heating bills only dealt with part of the problem.

“It provides a Band-Aid to a wound that needs a tourniquet,” he said in a recent interview.

Noting that fuel poverty will only increase over time as those struggling to pay bills find the bills getting higher, Mr. Edens proposed — and ended up founding a company — to provide energy assistance that is renewable and ongoing by installing solar furnaces that continually provide heat support to the household as a renewable energy source.

The solar panels can work effectively even in Minnesota’s cold winters.

“Despite the cold weather, Minnesota has the same solar resource profile as Houston, Texas,” he explained. “Year-round, it can produce a viable source of solar energy.”

These solar panels provide more heat support to the household’s energy resources than the 12 percent support typical of the government energy-assistance subsidy, adding 25 percent to 30 percent more heat assistance, which is integrated into the overall heat provision of the home.

“Solar power is not a silver bullet,” Mr. Edens explained, “but it’s part of the ‘golden buckshot’ of energy provision. It’s actually a more fiscally conservative approach, because no one knows what a unit of energy will cost in one or five or 10 years, but we know that the solar energy will continue to be there.”

Taking a page from Habitat for Humanity, the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) has both a strong focus on volunteerism, and a strong educational aspect.

“We have an experiential program of service learning, which has included home-schoolers, at-risk youth serving community service and others. In my experience in the classroom, I found that most education is oriented towards one or two types of learners: visual and audial. Many other learners just fall through the cracks. This is a way for them to learn so much in a short time.”

Volunteers work hands on, helping install the flat panels on the side of the home in just one or two days. The panels will provide heat for the family for 25 to 30 years, either lowering the financial cost of heating for the family, or increasing the comfort of the family that is forced to keep the thermostat uncomfortably low to save on costs.

Homeowners are encouraged to be a part of the installation, too, to create “sweat equity” as a part of the experience.

Home-schoolers have always been a strong part of RREAL’s support group.

“This is a great conduit to teach a lot of subject matter,” Mr. Edens said. “We can teach diverse subjects like science, math, history and all about natural resources.

“Today’s youth will be making tomorrow’s energy choices, so teaching about solar energy prepares them for leadership in the future, having renewable energy as part of their awareness.”

Even those with no previous experience in solar heat can see results in a few days, Mr. Edens said, and the lessons learned go beyond the science and skills involved.

“It helps teach the practical solution that renewable heat offers; especially as a way to help support those with low incomes who are suffering from fuel poverty.”

Home-schoolers interested in learning about how solar energy can provide help to families grappling with the cost of energy or who want to do some hands-on training with RREAL should visit www.rreal.org.

Kate Tsubata is a freelance writer and home-schooler living in Maryland.

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