We started our tour of San Francisco's solar homes in sunny Portrero Hill, near this preschool (left) with solar panels and a panoramic bay view. At our first stop, you can barely spy the twenty 150-watt solar panels just above the skylight on this classic Edwardian Portrero home (below right).
Owner Richard Katz chose flat panels because they require less bolting than tilted ones, which can lift in the wind and damage the roof. He still had to patch some roof leaks after last year's installation, a common solar maintenance hassle. The panels came with a 25-year guarantee, and Katz hopes within that time to recoup some of the $20,000 installation cost—especially as the cost of natural gas rises. He already got a $10,000 check from a Sunshine State rebate—making this one of the more affordable solar installations on the tour. But rebates are shrinking, and California lawmakers recently let the ballyhooed Million Solar Homes bill wither.
“It’s very expensive energy but you get the right feeling through this,” Katz said. He pays a trifling $4.29 to Pacific Gas & Electric each month, but doesn't profit if his electric meter runs backward. “If you generate extra power, PG&E says thanks for the Chanukah gift.”
Contrary to popular belief, most urban solar homes aren’t “off the grid,” so they’ll go dark in any PG&E blackout. You’d need lots of batteries for a truly self-sufficient solar system. “Batteries are really nasty environmentally and I didn’t want anything to do with that,” Katz said. "I sleep well at night."
If you're not ready to go solar, Katz pointed out easy steps to conserving energy at home. Leave a cell phone charger plugged into the wall day and night without the phone, and the single watt sucked up by the deceptively dormant gadget could ring up to $8/year. Add up every hair dryer, TV, and microwave that's always plugged in and the costs quickly snowball. When you weep at your heating bill this winter, your new best friend might become the on/off switch on your power cords (right).
The Solar Tour of San Francisco was also a showcase of electric cars, thanks to the S.F. Electric Vehicle Association's co-sponsorship of the event. Our second stop took us to another Portrero Hill abode, where sat the 34th little green Sparrow ever built (right).
This one-person electricmobile can be buggy, but it’s a penny-per-mile dream for short city trips the one-third of the time that it does work, said owner William Laven (below), who keeps more-reliable hybrids (left, above) on hand.
The Laven-Pielentz property includes two houses linked by a sigh-worthy zen garden. It cost about $45K after rebates to equip both buildings with solar panels. The power inverter (left) circa 1997 is about the size of a window air conditioning unit, but newer Sunny Boy inverters, which convert DC to AC, are about phone book size.
Moving on to fog-free Bernal Heights, we stopped at the Stamm residence. Kevin Stamm's rooftop solar panels are weighed down by concrete blocks, so there's no bolting required. This early solar devotee hooked up the panels 15 years ago to run his efficient SunFrost refrigerator(left, below), with batteries stored underneath and meters perched above the fridge. He got the used panels from the Army. If the first generation of solar enthusiasts cobbled together systems themselves, and the third generation is made up of grid-tiered folks, then Stamm (right) considers himself a second-generation solar energy tinkerer.
Moving along to the fourth stop, we checked out a striking green-and-purple home that literally brought sunlight to what some people felt was full of 'dark,' sad energy. The Griffins installed 14 solar panels themselves. This former corner store on a rugged edge of Bernal Hill was reportedly haunted for years; more than a decade ago, the owner shot himself in the basement rather than move for medical care. Our friend Chris lived here a couple of years ago and remembers the lights turning themselves on and off; he also couldn't figure out how the TV moved from the wall to the middle of the room when nobody was around. But after an exorcism, the electrical quirks and sense of grief have gone away, says current owner Nicola (right). Whether or not you believe in house hauntings, this one seems happy now. We got to climb up to the roof and check out the sweeping view of the city and bay.
The Griffins are also converting a VW van to run on electricity. Their friend Larry was showing off his electric truck. Open the hood (below, left)to peek at the guts. He said you can convert, say, a Chevy Sprint or Ford Festiva to buzz along on electricity for about $1,500 in installation plus another $3K for parts. Larry pointed out that electric vehicles have been around since an Iowa farmer cooked one up in 1837. Electric cars were commercialized in the Victorian era, but Ford's introduction of the electric starter in 1920 put an end to that. "If we get people to go electric against the oil companies' wishes then eventually they'll build them for us," Larry said.
By the time we reached the fifth of 10 homes on the tour, there were only three minutes left to the tour. This time we breathlessly checked out the newest, most deluxe electric car yet--a 2002 Toyota SUV parked in front. "We're old hippies," said Marc Dybbuk, who bought this Victorian building (left) in the Haight with friends about a dozen years ago. The solar panels cost about $22K after rebate. You could say that running an electric car charged on such a solar-powered system is like driving on sunshine.