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Sun shines on renewable power

SunWind Concepts is bringing alternative energy home.

Working as a film editor in California, Michael Lichtenberger was troubled by sunny days.

“Every day I’d walk outside and see the sun and ask, ‘Why are we paying to heat our water? Why are we paying to heat our houses?’” he recalls.

Those questions set Lichtenberger on a path to a new home and a new career.

Along with Stan Brown, he is now a Bainbridge representative for the expanding Camano Island-based SunWind Concepts, a company that provides home solar and wind power systems.

While still in California, Lichtenberger began tinkering with solar technology and in 2003 won a patent for an integrated solar water heater.

He realized he had a product, but not the skills to market it. He needed a business school.

Bainbridge Graduate Institute seemed a good fit for studying sustainable business and a good place to live to boot, so he pulled up roots and relocated his family to the island.

At BGI he met Brown, a Bainbridge resident who was trading a career as a commuting computer technician for a fresh start in alternative energy.

Brown had also moonlighted as an electrical engineer, and worked with SunWind Concepts owner Tom Rentz in the past.

Recognizing a new wave of environmental awareness, Rentz was looking to expand his 30-year-old company.

“(Rentz) was a true believer for a long, long time, and now everyone else has caught up and he is happy to share his experience,” Lichtenberger said.

For Brown and Lichtenberger it was an opportunity to finally have day jobs in an industry they cared about.

Now they say their challenge is spreading the word that solar technology is viable in the forested and often cloudy Pacific Northwest.

True, trees shade many island houses, but as long as a property is exposed during peak hours of mid-morning through early evening, solar could be a good option, Lichtenberger said.

And photovoltaic (solar) arrays still work under a cloud cover, just at reduced capacity, Brown added.

“The Olympic Peninsula, for instance, is more cloudy, but they have a higher density of PVs than anywhere else in the state,” he said.

For homeowners interested in a renewable energy, Brown and Lichetenberger begin by assessing the home’s energy use to see if there are ways to consume less.

Then they measure the amount of sun a home gets, help the owner pick a practical system, then work them through the permitting, installation and inspections and provide ongoing support after the system is installed.

Along with solar electric and water heating systems, the pair will also set up back-up battery systems and wind generators. Lichtenberger still plans to produce his pantented water heater.

Installing solar systems is a lengthy process, so although the sun may not be on the minds of many homeowners this time of year, Lichtenberger said it’s good to get started early.

“If you take care of all that now while it’s still cloudy, then with the first sun of spring you’ll already be up and generating electricity and hot water,” he said.

Brown and Lichtenberger said they are excited by the efforts of groups like Bainbridge Island Energy Solutions and Sustainable Bainbridge to integrate renewable energy in the community.

“It’s an industry whose time has come,” Brown said.

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Natural power

For more on SunWind Concepts and solar resources, see www.sunwindconcepts.us.

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