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Sun: energy’s new frontier

Stair Dickerman, who owns a small organic farm on Roberts Road, stands near his free-standing solar installation. His home is one of eight island stops on this year’s solar tour. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Stair Dickerman, who owns a small organic farm on Roberts Road, stands near his free-standing solar installation. His home is one of eight island stops on this year’s solar tour.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Today’s solar tour is twice the size of last year’s inaugural event.

Nudged by an autumn breeze, broken clouds swim above the head of Stair Dickerman.

As they pass by, shadow and sunlight slowly exchange places, until finally the landscape at his Roberts Road farm glows pale yellow.

The rays penetrate his wife’s greenhouse. They reach ripening pumpkins on the hillside, and a few dozen chickens strutting in the grass.

It’s too late in the year for those rays to produce a suntan. But gathered by the free-standing solar panels at the north end of Dickerman’s property, they will produce enough energy to ease the strain on the environment, the power grid and, in the long run, his wallet.

“I’d rather have my money invested in something like this than have it sitting in the bank,” he said, looking at the panels and tugging at his dusty pockets. “At least I know this is real.”

Equally real, for Dickerman and other solar power proponents, is the great solar dilemma: the technology, though increasingly viable, still isn’t the norm.

Part of the struggle is solar’s initial cost, which tends to be high. Dickerman paid $45,000 for his setup. Even though his monthly energy bill has dipped dramatically as a result, and he gets regular checks from the power company for putting juice back into the grid, it will take some time to break even.

Still, said islander Joe Deets, people are slowly beginning to see the light.

He and his wife Tammy had hoped to organize a local tour of solar homes two years ago, as part of a larger national tour put on each year by the American Solar Energy Society. There was just one problem.

“There weren’t enough solar homes here to make it worthwhile,” Joe Deets said.

That changed last year, after enough homes came online to warrant a tour.

This year’s event has doubled in size, with 12 stops in Kitsap County, and eight on Bainbridge, including Dickerman’s farm.

Organizers hope that by allowing the public access to homes that are already taking advantage of solar energy, more people will realize the benefits and consider partaking themselves.

“It’s about continually trying to size things down,” said Steve Douglass, whose home is one of the tour stops.

A physics and chemistry teacher, and a self-proclaimed “technology geek,” Douglass measures the world in watts.

Charging around his home, he quickly rattles off the energy needs of each electrical device he sees in his path.

His fridge, he said, is the most efficient model in the world. His desktop computer saps a lot of energy, so he’s looking at new laptops.

Since moving to his Sunrise Drive home from Ohio in 2005, Douglass has been tinkering with his own solar setup.

He first mounted panels in the fir trees at the southern edge of his property, where there was more light. Following complaints from his neighbor, Douglass was told by the city he would need a permit to leave them there.

Instead, he installed them on his roof, resulting in a system that powers Douglass’ home, runs electricity back into the grid, and keeps energy on tap in batteries lining his garage.

Thanks to his setup, which can indefinitely power all of his vital appliances, Douglass wouldn’t be greatly affected by a prolonged power outage. Even so, he spends most of his energy trying to save energy.

When not in use, microwaves and other appliances are shut off via power strips. Douglass has replaced nearly all the original light fixtures in his home with more efficient ones. He hangs his clothes to dry on lines outside.

He even rigged his hot water heater to run only in the morning and evening, when he and his wife need to cook or shower; drippings from the latter are saved and used to water the garden.

Up next is a partition for the living room, which is the family’s primary living space, and thus the only space that really needs to be heated.

“When you want to go upstairs to use the computer it may only be 55 degrees,” he said. “So what? Put on a jacket.”

Not far away, a new home on Valley Road is designed to hold a temperature that’s perpetually pleasant. In fact, the entire home – from its radiant floor heating to its liberally applied soy-based insulation – is designed to remain cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Like Douglass’ home, its solar panels are mounted on the roof. Water for its future inhabitants – just completed, the home is still on the market – is heated using a separate solar-powered device in the backyard.

Standing at the side of the house, Lisa Martin, the home’s developer, notes that the panels are still gathering energy from the sun despite overcast skies.

“We’re sending,” she says, smiling as she points at the meter. “This proves it can be done.”

Martin said the key is getting people to think long-term, beyond setup costs that will eventually pay for themselves.

She and other proponents say incentives and policy shifts will be needed to spur the continued development of solar power.

Local environmental group Sustainable Bainbridge is pushing the city to adopt a green building ordinance that would encourage earth-friendly development.

Some incentives already exist. Solar users are paid 15 cents per kilowatt hour by the state; a house that on average spends $100 per month on electricity would get back roughly $1,300 per year, according to findsolar.org.

That same home, if 50 percent solar powered, would save about $1,700 annually or between $21,000 and $41,000 over the course of the average system’s 25-year life-span.

Because Douglass’ system was just recently installed, he doesn’t yet know its exact monetary value. He does know it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s not only doable,” he said. “It’s the only really good way of producing energy on the earth.”

Then, seated in his upstairs library and surrounded by an army of well-worn books on science, technology and energy, the grey-bearded Douglass is suddenly struck by inspiration.

He rifles through his desk drawer.

“This is good,” he says hurriedly, “I’ve been meaning to calculate this for a while now.”

Calculator in hand, he crinkles his nose, leans to the side and adjusts the angle of his wrist to allow the sunlight, beaming through the window behind him, access to its tiny solar panel.

“I wonder,” he says, as aided by the light, the numbers on the display come into focus.

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Forecast: sun

This year’s Kitsap Solar Tour features 12 homes, eight of which are on Bainbridge. All sites are open to the public today between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. For a list of off-island homes and directions, see www.solarwashington.org or call 855-4893. Visitors should carpool if possible.

Derzon and Suplee home: 10140 Roberts Road

O’donneil and Arthur home: 1145 Hawley Way

Rolling Bay Land Company Valley Farm House:

9745 Valley Road

Martin and Fabert home:

10531 Manitou Beach Road

Tani Creek Farm:

9021 Kono Road

Douglass and Jenkner home:

15399 Sunrise Drive

Vineyard Lane:

998 Vineyard Lane, Suite J301

Dickerman home:

10065 Roberts Road

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