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Make energy while the sun shines

One of a trio of four-piece solar panels mounted on a fir tree next to Cyndy Salisbury’s Bucklin Hill home. - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
One of a trio of four-piece solar panels mounted on a fir tree next to Cyndy Salisbury’s Bucklin Hill home.
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

Solar power advocates believe alternative energy is a bright idea.

Cyndy Salisbury frequently has visions while staring at sun-drenched rooftops.

On the ridges of Bainbridge homes and Seattle high-rises, she visualizes economic and environmental salvation through rows and rows of solar panels delivering the Northwest from fiery fossil fuel damnation.

“Everything in me just cries out to see all those south-facing roofs covered in solar panels,” Salisbury said. “I see that when I’m driving around the island and when I look at the Seattle skyline and I think, ‘Yikes!’ What if just 20 percent had panels?’ That’d be such a huge impact.”

Living “off the grid” on Bucklin Hill with 12 solar panels and a backup propane generator, Salisbury is one alternative energy disciple likely to turn out for the Bainbridge Island Solar Outreach Forum on Aug. 27.

But the event, which will draw politicians, architects and solar power experts, has an additional goal of converting the masses of home buyers and builders who may not have seen the light.

“It’s particularly important to let building professionals know about the attributes of solar energy and why it’s good for business,” said Joe Deets, the event’s organizer and a member of the Solar Washington Association. “Studies have shown that more and more home buyers will chose energy alternatives if they are offered to them.

“It’s good for builders, architects and realtors to know this because, frankly, if they’re not offering these alternatives, someone else will.”

Deets believes consumers will increasingly demand solar and other alternative energy sources as the cost of oil, coal and natural gas continues to rise.

“It is a fact that the days of cheap fossil are coming to an end,” he said.

“We can all feel the effect, whether at the gas station or writing a check for the heating oil tank fill-up.”

Gas prices continue to break records and utility companies are increasingly following suit.

Puget Sound Energy recently announced a $55.6 billion rate hike to, in part, keep pace with rising wholesale natural gas prices. This could mean a 4.4 percent bill boost by December, according to PSE.

“Most Americans don’t look at how much power they’re using, or how energy efficient their appliances are or even how much their light bulbs are draining away power,” said Salisbury’s husband, Tom Salisbury.

“Now people are realizing how much things cost. They’re going to have to be more conscious.”

Built-in

The cost of a traditional power hook-up was one of the reasons the Salisburys decided to meet much of their power needs on their own.

The couple built their 3,000-square-foot house on Bainbridge about seven years ago, but balked at PSE’s $13,000 fee to hook up to the power grid.

Instead, the Salisburys spent a few grand more for solar panels and installed a back-up propane generator.

The panels are mounted on a fir tree next to the house.

Cyndy Salisbury admits their DIY power system probably doesn’t save them that much money, thanks to the propane bill, and any eco-friendly motivation looks a bit hazy behind the propane fumes.

But living with a limited power source has made her family much more vigilant about consumption.

“You walk through the house at night and you don’t see the little red lights – on the phone, on the stereo, on the TV – all that’s turned off because all of that causes tiny bleeds,” she said, adding that most of their appliances and all lights are energy efficient.

Sometimes the solar panels produce more than their battery can store, especially during the months of peak sun exposure or when the family is out of the house.

“It’s like dumping water on the ground,” she said. “And when we went on a three-week vacation, all that power went nowhere.”

But it could be linked to the greater power grid, with the Salisbury house serving as a mini-power plant.

This fits into Cyndy’s grand vision of every sun-exposed rooftop crowned with one or more solar panels.

Rather than relying solely on a central power plant, thousands of households and businesses would contribute to a city or region’s overall power production.

The Salisburys are looking forward to adding some of their juice to the grid, but are still hesitant about the link-up fees.

They say they’ll keep their ears open about a number of incentive programs to be discussed at the forum.

Chief among them is a recently passed state law that Earth Day founder Dennis Hayes called “the most important solar legislation ever introduced in any American state legislature.”

Patterned after a German program, the law would let homes and businesses earn 15 cents per kilowatt of electricity generated by renewable energy systems.

This amount is increased to 54 cents if the system’s components were manufactured in Washington state, with an annual $2,000 cap.

“A similar law in Germany has made Germany the largest solar-user in the world,” Deets said. “They’ve now got a whole new energy industry, and that means a lot of well-paying jobs. It also means less reliance on Middle East oil and, of course, it takes enormous pressure off the environment.

“So, whatever side of the political spectrum you’re on, it’s pretty clear the tremendous utility in solar power.”

* * * * *

Free power

The Bainbridge Island Solar Outreach Forum runs from 9 a.m. to noon Aug. 27 at City Hall. The event is free. For more information, contact Joe Deets at jwdeets@hotmail.com or see www.solarwashington.org.

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