John F. Long Properties Inc. sold the homes for about $95,000 each and operated the solar electric system as a separate entity, taking advantage of the tax credits, which were phased out in 1986. By agreement, the homeowners eventually ended up owning the solar array, which generates enough electricity to offset what they use.
"So, in effect, people living there have a zero energy bill," said Mr. Howley of Siemens Solar. "They don't pay an electric bill to the utility."
While big-name companies are starting to emerge as players in the industry, its history belongs to grass-roots types like Sam Droege.
His $9,000 system won't run all the appliances of a typical U.S. household. Aside from a washing machine, Mr. Droege and his wife, Romey Pittman, rely on the typical accouterments of a solar household: a refrigerator that can switch between electric and propane power, high-efficiency lighting and a wood-burning stove for heat.
But he points out that he and his wife have been living in their log home without any electricity until now, except for two batteries used to power a well pump.
"As far as our definition of civilized," he says, "we'll be very civilized."