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Illustration of a solar-powered home

Here Comes the Sun

Solar power, once the energy source of choice for hippies living in backwoods shacks, has finally made it to the suburbs. Hey, man, now you can have it all.

by Alan Reder

Not very long ago, owning a solar-powered home branded folks the way, say, wearing dreadlocks did. You could guess with reasonable accuracy their favorite band (Grateful Dead), what they'd eaten for lunch (veggie burger), and where they resided (miles from Main Street, both physically and mentally). They lived "off-the-grid," liberated from the local utility. They called their lifestyle "energy independent," though others might have called it "energy inconvenient," since these children of the sun had to carefully ration the limited power their home systems produced. Still, they accepted their deprivation stoically, while, perhaps, looking down on those of us still mired in materialism.

But, oh, how times have changed. McDonald's is now test-marketing veggie burgers, and the solar dudes are moving to the suburbs. Take Bob Maynard.

Ten years ago, Maynard was living a fair distance from the world of cul-de-sacs and Cuisinarts. He and his first wife lived in a small solar-powered cabin in southern Oregon's rural Illinois Valley. They produced all their own electricity, and while this had certain psychological benefits (a pioneer's sense of self-reliance and freedom), it also had its drawbacks (fewer -- and smaller -- appliances than you'd find in many studio apartments).

But after a decade of rural exile, Maynard now lives with his second wife, Barb, in a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch-style house in suburban Grants Pass, Oregon. Both inside and out, the Maynards' place doesn't look much different from their neighbors'. They own two computers, two aquariums, a 21-cubic-foot Amana fridge, a full-size washer and dryer, and an entertainment center complete with tower speakers and a large-screen TV, and they use all of it as much as they want.

It would seem that Bob had gone from being a classic eco-freak to a classic sellout. But he hasn't given up his photovoltaic panels any more than he's abandoned his environmental leanings. It's just that the world finally is catching up with Bob Maynard.

Without much fanfare, solar power has blossomed into a viable option for conventional householders -- i.e, suburbanites. Early on, when people like the Maynards chose to go solar, they did so at a cost that few middle-class Americans would tolerate. Back in their old cabin, the Maynards watched TV on a paltry 13-inch set and listened to music on a tinny boom box, because brawnier gear sucked more power than their system could provide. For the same reason, they cooled their food in a modest 16-cubic-foot Sun Frost refrigerator, which offered unmatched energy efficiency but a steep price tag of $2,500. And forget running a load of laundry after dinner: Once the sun went down, the system ran entirely on stored power from backup batteries, and that supply was mercilessly finite.

Today the Maynards can run their appliances as much as they want to because they get backup electricity from the same place their neighbors do: Pacific Power, their local utility. Whenever their home's electric load becomes too much for the system, it automatically draws power from the utility grid. The beauty is, the Maynards still get most of their juice from the sky (except during those sun-starved months of winter) via a 3.3-kilowatt solar energy system, whose photovoltaic panels lie flat against a mere 250 square feet of their roof. Last summer, the Maynards' system actually generated more power than they used, and according to the neat digital readout in their garage, the system has actually prevented more than 2,180 pounds of carbon pollution from entering the air since the Maynards installed it last May. (By contrast, the average home's use of conventional electricity is responsible for 22,000 pounds of carbon pollution annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.) Combine that with falling prices for home solar systems (seven-fold in the past two decades) and rising utility costs (up six percent nationwide last year alone), and suddenly solar seems like a bright idea.

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

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Illustration: Francisco Cacares

OnEarth. Winter 2004
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council