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Natural Resources; A Natural Way for Some to Save

By Jenifer Gee

At first thought, some may think Jan and Tony Migliaccio´s idea to live in a house made with straw, built on top of a hill, is about as smart as the first little pig who hid from the big bad wolf in his own humble straw dwelling.

On top of that, they´re not connected to Pacific Gas & Electric power grid and power their house with a bunch of batteries.

But the Volcano residents have been comfortably living in their solar power house of clay plaster and straw since March 2003 – a house that not only protects them but also helps the environment. They are among other county residents who have decided to go “off the grid” and power their homes with solar energy.

“We feel like we´ve done something to protect the environment,” Jan said. “That was our goal and I think we feel really good about that.”

The house, approximately 1,600 square feet, has two bedrooms and two bathrooms and is powered by about 16 solar panels and eight, 6-volt batteries, which generate about 48 volts direct current, which, when channeled through an inverter, converts to 110 alternating current, the same amount of electricity used in homes on the grid. The batteries and panels are stored in a 10-by-12-foot power house about 150 feet away from the home.

The house is primarily insulated with straw bales, except for a few walls in the laundry room that are insulated with denim, and closed in with earth plaster walls that “allow the bales to breathe,” Jan said. The bales keep the house “highly insulated,” Jan said, so there is no forced air heating or cooling for the home.

Jan said that the “way the house is presented, it gets the winds and the floors warm with radiant warmth pipes underneath the floor. We like the fact that we can keep it open.” The Migliaccios also keep the inside of the house protected from the sun with solar screens that cut about 90 percent of ultraviolet rays and heat.

For the Migliaccios and for Jay Storer´s family, another highlight of using solar energy is being “off the grid,” which means no PG&E bill shows up inside their mailbox.

Jay Storer, his wife Gloria and their 17-year-old daughter, Ellie, moved into their solar-powered home in 2000. The Volcano residents said there was an adjustment period when they were unsure of what appliances they could use and at first, it was strange to not pay an electricity bill.

“We almost felt like we were cheating,” Gloria said.

The Storers have learned that noon is the best time to run the washing machine and dish washer because that is when the sun is at its most powerful. While overall they can operate most appliances such as their three computers, their daughter´s hair straightener, the refrigerator, television and more, all at the same time, the family is still careful to turn off lights they are not using and other items.

“I´m like the electricity cop in the family,” Jay said.

The family waited to build on the property for about 10 years because they wanted to determine the best use of the property, which they bought knowing there was no electricity connected to it. “To bring PG&E we could´ve bought the piece of property and built a tent on it,” Jay said, referring to the high cost of connecting the property to the grid. Instead, the Storers opted to build a house and create their own electricity.

The house, which is 2,400 square feet, has four bedrooms, three bathrooms and modern conveniences such as DSL Internet and cable and “we don´t have to hand-crank the refrigerator,” Jay said, laughing.

The house also has a back-up generator connected to the power system to make up for cloudy or rainy days, especially in the winter, when the panels collect less energy. The Storers purchased used panels from a phone company, which, Jay said, “got us into solar at a reasonable price.”

The Storers suggested that people who buy solar systems, especially used panels, be prepared to do some sort of maintenance to them or factor in the cost to hire someone. “They have to be willing to put something in themselves to make it work,” Jay said.

Another homeowner decided to build his own power system when in 1993, PG&E wanted $240,000 to bring power to his existing house. “I thought, ´My, my, I could build a power system cheaper than that using solar panels and batteries,´” said Darryl Conklin, president and chief executive officer of Renewable Technologies Inc. in Sutter Creek. “In doing so I realized there was a niche market and opportunity.”

Conklin started his company in 1994 and since then his company has installed “hundreds” of solar systems for residential and commercial buildings.

While systems don´t pollute the environment, Conklin said because batteries contain lead, they have to be handled and disposed of responsibly.

Average prices and installation times for solar-powered homes vary between different companies. Conklin said the cost of a system depends on a number of factors including how many solar panels and batteries are in the system as well as what type of inverters and the needs of the resident or business.

Mark Danenhower, owner of The Solar Company in Ione, said a solar-powered system can be considered an investment. “I feel my customers actually make money on the systems we install,” Danenhower said. “Not only that, they´re helping the environment by eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.”

Danenhower has 16 years of experience as a general building contractor and started installing solar systems three years ago. He said he has noticed a trend of increasing demand for the environment-conscience systems.

“It´s definitely getting more and more popular especially this year for a number of reasons,” said Danenhower, whose house is solar powered. “The heat storm in the summer meant people´s energy bills went through the roof and also the electric rates have gone up substantially this year, which has encouraged people to look for alternative ways of paying for their power,” he said.

Danenhower said while he is not off the grid, his system “eliminates a very expensive part of the electric bill.” He said in about five years his system will have paid for itself and he´ll “have free electricity for about 30 to 40 years.”

Reprinted with permission from the Amador Ledger Dispatch