Living with the Grid

From the West Wing to West St. Paul, solar and its clean energy counterparts aren’t just for "off-gridders" anymore.


Photo: Josh Kohanek
Now that a photovoltaic array powers their home in St. Paul, Dickinson and Childs use a small, 30-watt Solarex panel (pictured), the first they ever owned, for demonstration purposes.

Hike around the West Side of St. Paul, Minn., and you’d hardly think you were among energy pioneers. The quiet neighborhood is a far cry from sci-fi. Yet, the home of Elizabeth Dickinson and Christopher Childs may well be the home of the future, at least in terms of electricity.

Dickinson and Childs are one of a growing number of U.S. households turning to solar energy to meet their electricity requirements. With a 3-kilowatt photovoltaic system powering their house, their electricity is, on average, entirely generated by the sun—with a little left over. Carbon footprint? Zero.

Only a few decades ago, photovoltaic solar was considered an exotic technology. Today, Jay Leno uses solar to fuel his larger-than-life garage, and George W. Bush—not exactly a wild-eyed environmentalist—installed photovoltaics to help power the White House and heat its pool.

It seems safe to say that solar energy has come of age.

“There’s a growing awareness,” explains Doug Shoemaker, a retired fleet manager at Xcel Energy who joined the board of directors of the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society in 2004.

“When I started, we’d get maybe one or two calls a year inviting us to an event. Now I’m getting one or two calls a day,” says Shoemaker. “I used to leave the capital after lobbying and I would feel discouraged. Now I have legislators who come to me for information about solar.”

There are many reasons for the surge in interest, including concerns about climate change and energy independence. But these factors alone would be for naught without a simple, but profound, shift in the technological approach to solar.

Early pioneers of the technology were, for the most part, homesteaders in search of an energy source independent of the electrical grid. Solar fits the bill, but you can make hay only when the sun shines. Moreover, storing electricity is notoriously difficult. For at least 40 years, then, the primary focus of the solar industry has been on building a better battery.

Enter net metering. In a typical grid-powered house, your meter calculates how much energy you suck out of the grid. With net metering, you can add a solar panel (or, for that matter, any electricity generator) and your meter will actually spin backward during the time periods that you’re generating more electricity than you’re using.

In Minnesota, state laws require the utility to purchase this excess power for the same price that you would pay on your electricity bill. And according to Shawn Bagley, an engineer in charge of Xcel Energy’s net metering program, the typical household system requires literally no modifications to the grid. “For the large majority of residential systems, all we have to do is replace the meter with one that can read both ways,” he says.

As a result of this technology, says Childs, he decided to skip battery storage altogether. “The grid has gone down maybe three times in the 10 years I’ve lived here,” he says. “So I figured, why not save the five to 10 grand that a battery would have cost.”

Childs, a writer, and his partner, a nonprofit lobbyist, have spent a lot of time working for progressive causes, including alternative energy. Childs put in a stint for Greenpeace demonstrating the power of solar photovoltaics, while Dickinson ran for mayor recently as a Green Party candidate.

But, Childs says, “I would hardly qualify as a hippie,” and solar was not their first priority when they bought their “farmhouse in the city” 10 years ago. “We wanted a lovely older home, so our first investment in time and money was in restoring the character of the house and making it an attractive place to live.”

During their years of renovating, they also kept energy efficiency in mind. They swapped out light bulbs to compact fluorescents and LEDs and bought an Energy Star fridge. Judging by energy bills, they’ve cut their usage by at least a third to a half.

While he was sanding birch floors and choosing paint, the memory of the Greenpeace solar tour stayed with Childs, and eventually he and Dickinson took out a mortgage to pay the roughly $20,000 it took to put up a 3-kilowatt system to power their home.

Will the system pay for itself? Sort of. The couple considers the $20,000 a capital investment; like a new roof, the price should balance out when they sell the home. Plus, they pay for no electricity, and generate enough that they actually earn a little bit each year.

And then there are the intangible benefits.

“When I was 21, I bought a used Porsche,” Childs explains. “I never asked what the payback was on that. The payback came when I got behind the wheel and drove the car. Today, if I wake up on a sunny morning, I feel like I’m driving a solar-powered Porsche.”

JOSEPH HART is a freelance writer and editor, an author, and a contributing editor to the Utne Reader, where he covers a range of topics including alternative energy and green issues. He lives and works in Viroqua, Wis.