The Tour de Sol.©Soren Wills/NESEA
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. A battery array saves power for nighttime use.
Sanborn says that the 400 sites in last year’s open house attracted 6,000 visits, and the organizers are hoping for 9,000 in 2005.
The open house is just one of NESEA’s many educational activities. The sustainable energy group also sponsors the annual Tour de Sol, a "green car" exhibit and competition that last May traveled from Saratoga Springs, New York to Albany. Nancy Hazard, executive director of NESEA, says one highlight of this year’s event was the first running of a Monte Carlo-style rally. On May 14, rally drivers in Toyota Priuses, Honda Insights, Ford Escape hybrids and biodiesel cars started off from designated points in Canada, Washington State, Ohio, Connecticut and Boston to converge on Saratoga Springs, with the most fuel-efficient car coming out the winner. The car with the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions also won a prize.
Hazard, who has been with NESEA for 16 years, has seen the 2,000-member group grow considerably since its 1974 launch (in the wake of the Arab oil embargo). "The idea then was to spread the word about energy efficiency," says Hazard, "and the need is greater now than in 1974, because of climate change, increasing foreign oil dependency and the war in Iraq." Among NESEA’s innovations are conferences for professionals on subjects like energy for buildings, a K-12 educational program on sustainable energy, and public education for consumers (including the Sustainable Yellow Pages). "It’s hard work, but we keep at it," she says.
If you’re not old enough for the hybrid and electric cars at the Tour de Sol, there’s the Junior Solar Sprint races, in which kids from fifth to eighth grade compete with small, one-foot by two-foot vehicles equipped with identical motors and solar panels. According to Susan Reyes, a teacher and NESEA educational consultant, "The project is a centerpiece for many different curriculum ideas. Participants learn about global warming, engineering design and such science principles as using gear ratios, mass and forces in motion."
Reyes says that the kids" first attempts often don’t run at all, so team effort is required to make them competitive. "It is really quite impressive to see how highly motivated children can get when they have the objective of creating a car, which might be a prizewinner in craftsmanship, innovation, technical merit or speed," Reyes says. "I feel that kids in grades five to nine are at a turning point in their lives in which it is especially important to challenge and develop their critical thinking skills. We need to teach science in an ecological context so our future policy makers and voters make informed and wise decisions."
In essence, the kids learn about sustainability, and that’s what NESEA is all about.