Abundant Energy

New England’s NESEA Promotes Solar Power
And Green Buildings

Everyone’s familiar with the concept of the "open house," but suppose instead of McMansions you could visit only energy-efficient homes heated by solar or geothermal energy, with electricity provided by the wind? Sounds like an alternate universe, right?

The Green Buildings Open House includes Timothy Rourke"s 2,400-square-foot solar-equipped Connecticut home.©Timothy Rourke

Well, you actually can go on such a magical journey October 1, when the Colorado-based American Solar Energy Society sponsors the National Solar Tour. Last year, tours took place in 49 states plus the District of Columbia. This year, for example, you can go on the "Cool House Tour" of nine sites in and around Austin, Texas. A highlight of the tour in Tacoma, Washington is a solar-powered home with 1,500 watts of energy from the sun. "See my electric meter run backwards," the proud homeowner proclaims. "Sit in the solar-powered massage chair. Free organic seeds to the first 500 visitors!"

In New England, the Green Buildings Open House takes place Saturday, October 1 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. "There are 35 local organizers in the Northeast," says Anissa Sanborn, event coordinator for the open house’s parent organization, the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). "Some of the tours are exclusively solar, but we have straw bale homes and earth shelters (some grid-tied and some not), wind and solar generators, cogeneration and geothermal. You can tour the countryside, learn about the pros and cons of building green and catch up on the latest energy-efficient equipment."

One highlight of the 2005 tour will be the People’s Action for Clean Energy (PACE) building in Canton, Connecticut, featuring 40 photovoltaic modules that track the sun’s rays, as well as a solar irrigation system for the garden, a solar-electric pump for the pool, and a solar hot water system. Stargazers Winery in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, on the tour in 2004, is an earth-sheltered (built into the side of a hill for natural insulation) building with 4,800 kilowatts of installed solar power, and a rainwater catchment system for irrigating the vineyard.

Timothy Rourke, an engineer and the designer of his own solar home, is the Connecticut coordinator for the Green Buildings Open House. He expects to see a huge increase in interest this year because of a state program launched by the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund (funded by electrical ratepayers) that rebates $5 a watt, or as much as one half the cost of installing a solar photovoltaic electricity system. "We’re seeing more solar installers here in Connecticut, and even firms from outside the state are coming in to install systems," Rourke says.

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.