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Going Solar in the Snow

roof_snow.jpgWhen we talk about home solar, we regularly hear assertions that it's fine for people living in regions that are (mostly) sunny year-round, but not a good investment for people living in places that get a lot of snow in the winter and rain in the summer. Solar homes are fine in the desert southwest US, but certainly not in the northern midwest or northeast United States.

Don't try to tell that to the Compaan family of Ohio, the Watson family of Massachusetts, or the Lord family of Maine. They all use solar power as their primary energy sources in their homes, and are quite happy with it. The Campaans have even converted a pickup truck to electric-only mode, so they drive solar, as well. And as verification that solar in the north works well, all three websites include photos of their homes covered in snow, photovoltaic panels clearly visible.

All three are grid-connected, and enjoy "net metering," where surplus energy is sold to the power company. In the winter, they do pull from the grid more often than they supply, but the annual balance works in their favor. (The Watsons are considering adding a wind turbine for winter power, but haven't yet seen a need.) This is an important point about the Bright Green world of distributed energy: it's not about going "off-grid," it's about being on the supply side of the grid.

The Ohio home uses thin-film photovoltaics, while the Massachusetts and Maine homes use more commonplace silicon panels, but all three produce broadly similar levels of power (Maine maxes at 4.2 kilowatts, Ohio at 4.3 kW, and Massachusetts at 5.3 kW).

The three families may have taken different approaches to their power systems, but they all are happy to present abundant performance data on their websites. It's impressive to see -- one of the less-recognized benefits of distributed energy systems is that they prompt users to keep a closer watch on energy consumption and production patterns. Just like hybrid-electric cars trigger a kind of mileage-awareness in drivers, solar powered homes seem to encourage owners to develop an energy-awareness well beyond simply checking the bill every month.

The Watsons' website is also pretty up front about the costs, with a breakdown of estimated and actual costs. When they started their project, they expected to break even on the costs in a bit more than 13 years; now, a bit more than a year after finishing the work, they're now looking at a nine-and-a-half-year period to break even. The change comes from a combination of better-than-expected performance and rapidly-rising grid power prices -- if grid prices keep rising, they could go into a profit even sooner than they now expect.

This may end up being an important factor as more homes are built with solar power from the outset. The up-front costs of solar can be substantial, but if they're rolled into the opening mortgage, they can be easier to handle. The monthly income from selling power back to the grid can then be applied to paying down the mortgage faster.

Although the three homes linked here are novelties -- and all three sites discuss getting constant media attention -- they can also be seen as early indicators. Solar isn't just for sunny climes like the desert southwest US, Mexico, or Egypt; it can be of great value in places like New England, Canada, and Germany, too. The trick is not to think of it as a stand-alone solution. We're all in this together, and distributed power is a nice demonstration of that fact.

(Thanks for the tip, Rebecca Blood!)

Comments (2)

Hi Jamais,

Irani here. Its a good piece of information as many peope are of the idea that solar cells are a useless concept for people living in places where ample sunlight is a rear view.

I too run 2 blogs on environment (http://www.greendiary.com/, http://www.ecofriend.org/), and am pleased to inform you that I have linked your story 'How Much E-Waste Per Child?' in my blog.

I have also placed the 'worldchanging' blog in my blogroll.

Keep up with the good work.

Use solar income.

A small solar charger for standard sized rechargeable batteries in a south-facing window already put you on the supply side of the power production line. And that's for an investment of less than $50.

You can use a south-facing window to provide LED reading light and a radio for about $150 using off the shelf solar on the market devices.

The scale goes from one room to one house to one neighborhood to town and city region country world. There have to be solutions ready at each stage and each solution set should network with every other solution set.


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