When I was a kid, energy was fun. I used to write to utility companies asking for their brochures on nuclear power and then sit and study the cutaway diagrams of reactors. I devoured futuristic visions of cities where everyone drove whizzing electric cars and wore stylish white jumpsuits. I dreamt of becoming an astronaut to help build solar satellites to beam power to the ground.
Today, saving energy is less about fun than about simple and pure desperation. There’s nothing to focus your mind like being a homeowner and facing stiff, and rising, monthly gas and electric bills. My wife and I had always wanted to live in a romantic old house with creaking floorboards, and seven years ago we finally got that wish, only to be confronted with the fact that the Victorians didn’t know about R-values. (Those indicate resistance of insulation to heat flow, if you didn't know either.) All our grand plans for sprucing up the bathrooms gave way to retrofitting wiring, blowing in insulation, and wrapping steam pipes—all worthy uses of our time and money, but not as calculated to impress dinner guests as heated toilet seats.
Installing solar panels has always been on my list of things to do. They’d capture a bit of those boyhood futuristic dreams. They’d save money. They’d impress dinner guests. They’d give me some off-grid cred with my Alaskan friends.
The only trouble has always been sticker shock. I can think of better ways to spend the kind of money it would take to install solar, like eating. In a brief burst of enthusiasm last year, I looked into state subsidies, only to find that New Jersey’s fund had run out and that the Federal solar tax credit offered a paltry $2,000, which seems like more of an insult than a serious act of public policy. So I put solar on the back burner. (The solar refrigerator wasn't even a thought.)
Then my old friend Greg Feldberg -- who lives in Maryland and has begun writing about his own solar installation -- sparked me back to life. This year, New Jersey has replenished its fund, our local utility has started to offer loans for solar installations, and the limit on the Federal tax credit has been lifted. So my wife and I are going to do it, and I’m going to chronicle our progress with regular posts in 60-Second Solar.
We'll describe some of the steps we’ve taken to button up our house, show you pictures of the installations in progress, look at state and Federal subsidies, and get into bigger questions such as whether these subsidies are really such a wise idea for the country. Although the nitty-gritty of solar power seems far removed from the futuristic visions I loved as a boy, I figure it's only through incremental steps that the world becomes a better place.
So join us as we embark on this solar—even if we're not slipping the surly bonds of Earth—adventure. Maybe you'll share your own solar installation stories.
Editor's Note: Scientific American's George Musser will be chronicling his experiences installing solar panels in 60-Second Solar. See all his posts here.
George's house, pre-solar