Sun, wind, corn pare utility bills

Energy: The soaring costs of energy are causing more and more homeowners to install renewable-energy systems.

December 21, 2003|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Mike Tidwell's house looks so ... well, ordinary.

But beneath its 1915-era Cape Cod exterior, the Takoma Park house where Tidwell lives with his wife and 6-year-old son is anything but. Nearly all its electricity, heat and hot water come from the sun, the wind and, of all things, corn. His family uses natural gas only to cook and to heat water on cloudy days.

In the process, the family has pared its utility costs by more than half, from about $1,420 a year to about $630. That means saving about $66 a month - just about enough to make the payments on a loan used to retrofit the house. The average household spent $1,399 for electricity and heat last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Tidwells are living in a world likely to be shared by growing numbers of Americans, energy experts say.

At a time of distressingly frequent power outages, electric deregulation and soaring energy prices - the cost of natural gas has tripled over the past year - finding more effective ways to reduce reliance on the nation's electric grid is becoming increasingly appealing.

"Within the last five to six years, we've seen enormous growth [of alternative systems] on the grid," said Richard Perez, publisher of Home Power, a consumer-focused magazine dedicated to renewable energy. "The reason comes down to one thing - independence and reliability, self-sufficiency. `I want my electrical power source on site, and when the grid goes down I want my lights to still be on.'"

Falling costs of nontraditional energy sources as well as more efficient furnaces, appliances and home lights are making it possible for families to manage energy expenses rather than being held captive in an increasingly volatile and uncertain power-hungry culture.

With computers and other gadgets, average household energy consumption has grown 20 percent since 1981, according to the Edison Electric Institute.

Tidwell's is one of at least 20,000 homes or businesses in the country connected to the grid that have renewable energy systems, and most of those were installed over the past four years, a 200 percent annual growth rate, according to Perez. Including off-the-grid areas, there are an estimated 180,000 systems in the country, he said.

Fueling the growth of the typically costly systems are state and federal tax incentives, solar energy grants and a proliferation in many states, including Maryland, of the so-called net metering laws that allow homeowners to sell surplus electricity generated back to local utilities, spinning the electric meter backward and accruing credit.

August's huge blackout across the Northeast and the widespread power outages in the Mid-Atlantic after Tropical Storm Isabel and other storms have added to the impetus.

Solar contractors in the region say business is booming despite steep upfront costs.

Despite costs of at least $15,000, "we really are seeing an increase in business, a lot of it driven by the problems the utilities have had in the last year or two, with more outages and longer outages," said Isaac Opalinsky, a sales manager at Aurora Energy in Annapolis. "Once you've bought the system, you've negotiated a 30-year, fixed price for renewable energy. That price won't fluctuate, unlike the power from the utility.

"This has been our biggest year," said Jeff Gilbert, a principal partner at Chesapeake Wind and Solar in Columbia. "Last year was average, and we were struggling along trying to make a living. This year, we need more employees."

Experts say technological improvements that increase solar panels' output would help make solar systems more mainstream.

"What really has to happen is more efficient products have to get out in the field," said Steve Rosenstock, manager of energy solutions at Edison Electric Institute. "That will help drive down costs. It's all a matter of price and convenience."

At Tidwell's house in the historic district of Takoma Park, 36 solar panels on the back of the roof power the lights, and everything else that uses electricity, from appliances to the computer. A single, larger solar panel heats water. Inside, a corn-burning stove in the living room sends warm air wafting through the two-story, seven-room house all winter.

The 2-year-old system supplies about 70 percent of the family's power year around and virtually all during the summer since the house is not air-conditioned.

The family also gets electricity indirectly from wind power, buying wind certificates equivalent to the amount of electricity it needs to make up any gap in nonsolar-generated electricity. The certificates are a subsidy to wind power producers, which then add the same amount of wind-generated power to the nation's electric grid.

"It's not obvious that it's a renewable-energy household," said Tidwell, who offers periodic tours that draw as many as 300 people. "When they hear about it, some people think that it must be a geodesic dome in the Arizona desert."

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