By Motavalli, Jim
E Magazine , Vol. 16, No. 4
Everyone's familiar with the concept of the "open house," but suppose instead of McMansions you could visit only energy-efficient homes heated by solar or geothermal energy, with electricity provided by the wind? Sounds like an alternate universe, right?
Well, you actually can go on such a magical journey October 1, when the Colorado-based American Solar Energy Society sponsors the National Solar Tour. Last year, tours took place in 49 states plus the District of Columbia. This year, for example, you can go on the "Cool House Tour" of nine sites in and around Austin, Texas. A highlight of the tour in Tacoma, Washington is a solar-powered home with 1,500 watts of energy from the sun. "See my electric meter run backwards" the proud homeowner proclaims. "Sit in the solar-powered massage chair. Free organic seeds to the first 500 visitors!"
In New England, the Green Buildings Open House takes place Saturday, October 1 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. "There are 35 local organizers in the Northeast" says Anissa Sanborn, event coordinator for the open house's parent organization, the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). "Some of the tours are exclusively solar, but we have straw bale homes and earth shelters (some grid-tied and some not), wind and solar generators, cogeneration and geothermal. You can tour the countryside, learn about the pros and cons of building green and catch up on the latest energy-efficient equipment."
One highlight of the 2005 tour will be the People's Action for Clean Energy (PACE) building in Canton, Connecticut, featuring 40 phot0voltaic modules that track the sun's rays, as well as a solar irrigation system for the garden, a solar-electric pump for the pool, and a solar hot water system. Stargazers Winery in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, on the tour in 2004, is an earth-sheltered (built into the side of a hill for natural insulation) building with 4,800 kilowatts of installed solar power, and a rainwater catchment system for irrigating the vineyard.
Timothy Rourke, an engineer and the designer of his own solar home, is the Connecticut coordinator for the Green Buildings Open House. He expects to see a huge increase in interest this year because of a state program launched by the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund (funded by electrical ratepayers) that rebates $5 a watt, or as much as one half the cost of installing a solar photovoltaic electricity system. "We're seeing more solar installers here in Connecticut, and even firms from outside the state are coming in to install systems," Rourke says.
Rourke's own 2,400-square-foot home, in Ashford, Connecticut is also on this year's tour. It was built in 2000 specifically to be off the grid. The home is powered primarily by a 1.2-kilowatt photovoltaic array, which is powerful enough to run the microwave, TV, hair dryers, DVD player and clothes washer, though Rourke adds with a laugh that "they can't all run at the same time." Rourke's family of four is careful about its electricity use, and a propane-powered refrigerator and clothes dryer help reduce the load. …