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John Prusa and his home-made solar panels (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)
More than 30 years ago, before Ronald Reagan chopped 90 percent of the Energy Department's budget for projects such as the Solar Energy Research Institute, a portion of that funding was spent on outreach programs. These were designed to show people how to build passive solar housing as well as build and install relatively simple mechanical systems like solar-powered hot-water heaters. While SERI scientists worked on exotic ideas for new, cheaper ways to generate power with photovoltaic cells and alien-looking vertical-shaft wind turbines, a piece of the institute's approach was very oriented toward do-it-yourself thanks to its chief, and my then-boss, Denis Hayes. It was a bow in the direction of self-sufficiency and the concept that some aspects of using energy more efficiently could be accomplished without recourse to second mortgages and technicians. Or, as some called it then, hippie, tree-hugger stuff.

Even as the technology of renewables has grown far more sophisticated, and solar cells vastly more efficient and less costly, some people still believe that simple and home-made can provide significant benefits.

Two of those who have gone beyond the theory are Ruston Seaman and John Prusa. They live in the hilly river town of Philippi, W.Va., population 2700, poverty rate, 20 percent. They're religious men, both of them, Seaman being a Baptist pastor, but they've got a secular mission and they've set up a non-profit to achieve it. They want to install home-made solar electric panels throughout their town and others in the region. And they want to spread their idea across America.

As reported by Erich Schwartzel, they buy component parts, much of it except the solar cells secondhand, put them together and install them with donated labor. Families who buy the solar units pay them off on the installment plan with part of the monthly savings on their utility bills. The installations pay for themselves in about 10 years. Without solar panels, those bills can run $600 a month in the winter, no small matter in a town where coal used to be king but where employment now is mostly in the service industry or at the local Baptist college and the hospital.

Prusa came to his conclusion quite a while ago: "When the gasoline went from 89 cents to 99 cents, I knew we were in deep trouble," he said. "And that's when I decided I'm going to be totally independent, energy-wise."

He made his home more efficient, built panels for a solar water heater, then installed solar cells in a framework of re-purposed shower doors and started running his electrical meter backwards. Pastor Seaman eventually learned of the system and the two established New Vision, a non-profit they hope will create a national network to do across the country what they are doing locally.

Families who receive solar panels pay for them with two currencies: money and time.

One home can cost between $7,000 to $10,000 to outfit, with trees to clear and supplies to buy. Families pay for the panels with some of the savings they start to see on their electric bills each month. The money goes into a general community fund that finances more solar panels on more homes.

"Once 10 families start paying back, there's enough for Family Eleven," said Mr. Seaman.[...]

The installation is done in what Pastor Seaman calls "Philippi's version of Amish barn building." Families who get the solar units are required to volunteer their time helping install additional units in the town or putting in community time elsewhere. Prusa has greased that system of volunteer labor with a local currency he printed himself.

They are not keeping this operation to themselves and have invited church groups from as far away as Detroit and south Texas to learn New Vision's model. In each group, they train a solar panel technician, a project leader and volunteer coordinator.

The whole operation is one SERI chief Hayes and those of us on the do-it-yourself side of the institute would have heartily like to see take off about 1981. If it had we would be a lot closer to the 28 percent figure a SERI report that year said could be the proportion of electricity produced in the United States from solar, wind and geothermal sources by the year 2000. Instead, more than a decade later, it's still just 5 percent. Perhaps, if Seaman and Prusa's concept were to take hold, we could do some catching up.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Mon Feb 27, 2012 at 04:27 PM PST.

Also republished by Kosowatt.

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