Commentary on current events, politics, government, and popular culture from John Sheirer, author of the book, Make Common Sense Common Again.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Putting My Values Where My Roof Is

While sifting through tattered old boxes recently, I came across my own seventeen-year-old face beaming from a yellowed newspaper clipping. As a high school junior in 1978, I was named a top science student and invited to an energy conference at Penn State University. This was the first time that my picture appeared in the paper, the first time I spent a night away from our little farm without my family, and the first time I heard about the infant field of solar power.

An area coal company sponsored the conference, so solar was presented as a strange, possibly dangerous, far-too-expensive alternative to fossil fuels. But I was intrigued.

When I went to college, I learned that President Jimmy Carter (a trained engineer who understood the need for energy conservation) had mounted solar panels on the White House roof. In those formative years, I imagined my future in a forest cabin powered by solar panels like Carter's. I pictured driving my truck along rutted mountain roads to teach science at the local high school.

As many youthful dreams do, mine followed tangents both predictable and surprising. Middle age now finds me teaching, yes, but writing and communication rather than science. My venue is community college, not high school. My truck is a four-wheel-drive hatchback, my route the interstate. My forest is a wooded development not far from town, and my cabin is a pleasant contemporary farmhouse. All in all, a good result.

But I've finally come to realize one aspect of my vision: solar.

My wife Betsy and I heard about the Solarize Northampton initiative last summer, so we made an appointment. We planned to listen politely, then find a reason to decline the expense and trouble.

A nice young man from Real Goods Solar visited, enjoyed the attentions of Libby, our overly affectionate dog, and pitched his product. To our surprise, we couldn't find a reason to decline. Our house was at an ideal angle for the sun. The roof would accommodate twenty-seven panels in three rows of nine, a perfectly pitched rectangle to greet us as we drove up our street. We could easily generate enough energy to cover our full bill and sell electricity back to the grid.

Another nice young man came, scratched Libby behind the ears, and laid out the finances. The project would be expensive, yes, but no more than a modest new car. With low-interest loans, state and federal tax rebates, increased home value, and, of course, no electric bill, the cost was manageable. With no reason to say no, we found ourselves saying yes.

With solar projects in high demand, our installation couldn't be scheduled until just after Christmas. Several more nice men showed up to brave snow, cold, and wind atop our roof. A few days later, the installation was complete, just in time for our tax rebates to be credited for 2013.

As Betsy and I drive around the area, we keep an eye out for solar projects. We've seen dozens of houses and even a few fields lined with panels, some blending with the architecture, some jutting like ragged rock formations. Of course, we think ours is the prettiest.

When I think back to my younger days, I remember the disappointment of Ronald Reagan removing Jimmy Carter's solar panels. But last year, Barack Obama commissioned a new solar installation on the White House, a project that must please Carter as much as it annoys Reagan's acolytes.

Betsy and I try to live our values by keeping our footprint small. We turn off lights, keep our heat low, recycle, reuse, and compost. And now we've gone solar, a smart and ethical choice.

That teenager in the old newspaper photo will never inhabit a forest cabin--and that's okay. In our pleasant farmhouse, beneath those solar panels, we have a small, widow-lined sunroom that houses my writing desk, Betsy's reading chair, and a pet bed where Libby watches for squirrels, the occasional family of deer, and even a few bears on rare occasions. I'd call that the grown-up fulfillment of my youthful dream.


This article appeared here as my monthly newspaper column in my hometown Daily Hampshire Gazette.


Update, December 2014: After all the inspections and approvals were completed, our system was turned on in early February 2014. Since then, we've produced more electricity than we use, and we've paid off the project. Countless friends have asked us about the project, and we enjoy discussing the practical application of our values every time. Going solar is the best homeowner decision we've ever made.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. No anonymous comments, swearing, bullying, or other types of ignorance please. (This isn't, after all.)