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Amish & Solar

Solar Panels Find a Home with Amish

Cleveland Plain Dealer
Saturday, May 12, 2007, page 1

John Funk

AP Plain Dealer, Chuck Crow
MORE POWER Linda Rayber mows the lawn at her home in Holmes County. On top of her house is a 120-watt solar panel. The family stores the energy from the solar panel in a 12-volt battery, then uses that energy for their 12-volt light bulb or sewing machine.

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Berlin, Ohio- A drive through the rolling hills of this Holmes County farming community 80 miles south of Cleveland delights the senses with smells of farm manure and sawmill resins mingling with limestone dust rising from the roads.

Amish farmers work the fields with horse-drawn plows while their beef cattle and milk cows slowly graze nearby pastures. Women tend laundry on sagging clotheslines as their toddlers play with wooden toys.

Weaving around horse-drawn buggies, a visitor might miss the sight that seems out of place here - a technology that most Americans only dream about - solar panels.

Designed to turn photons into electrons, the purple-black panels have sprung up in the last five years on the roofs of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Amish homes, barns and greenhouses.

Though still resisted by a few hard-line Amish denominations, this technology that NASA relies on for its most advanced spacecraft is being heartily embraced by more and more of the plain-spoken folk. They view it as a safe alternative to lighting their homes with natural gas, white gasoline or kerosene.

Organic dairy, beef and chicken farmer Owen Nisley on County Road 600 near Charm, describes solar as natural as nature itself - "no different from my cows eating the grass that has captured the sun's energy."

Nisley's solar panels generate about 500 watts of power. "The initial setup was very expensive," he said, "but we love the solar, even in the winter when there are a lot of dark days."

The equipment has become so prevalent that Green Energy Ohio is organizing an Amish Country tour during the American Solar Energy Society's 36th annual convention, July 7-12, in Cleveland. About 1,800 people from across the nation are expected to attend the conference and trade show.

Squaring solar panels with Amish religious beliefs is easy. "I am a Christian and I am Amish. But being Amish is not a religion. It's a way of life," said Jake Raber, co-owner of The Lighthouse of Ohio Distribution, Ltd., in nearby Fredericksburg. "Being Amish means being independent." Raber and his wife Betty ordered $50,000 worth of solar panels last year from suppliers in Michigan and Japan. They sold them all.

"Use common sense," he said. "You can fill a 50-gallon drum with white [clear] gas at $4 per gallon twice a year, or you can install solar. It's renewable. You can spend $600 on a solar panel, but it lasts 20 years."

In business only about five years, Raber and his son have sold and installed several hundred panels - mostly to Amish families who don't require massive amounts of electricity like their "English" counterparts (other Americans), and who typically have installed 12-volt wiring systems in their homes. "We Amish are energy efficient," he said.

And inquiries from "English" are beginning to trickle in as well, mostly from homeowners worried about the environment and some from people fed up with high electric bills or fearful of the next blackout.

Installing enough solar power to free a typical Ohio home from electric bills could cost as much as $20,000 to $25,000 with today's technology, said Raber, who recommends starting with a blackout backup system and slowly adding panels over years.

"You can pay an awful lot of electric bills with that kind of money," he said. "But these panels last 20, 25, 50 years. What is your electric bill going to be in 25 years?"

The burgeoning demand had caught the attention of Keim Lumber in nearby Charm. Opened as a sawmill in 1911, the Mennonite family-owned business welcomed 2007 with the grand opening of more than 130,000 square feet of retail and is making a special display room for solar power equipment.

"The need is there," said David Beachy, Keim's head of sales, who like many of Keim's employees is Amish. "We are working with installers. The key will be to find good installers."

It's the same story at Suncrest Solar just outside Berlin where veteran installers Reuben Miller and his son Jonathon are working hard to meet demand. The two have done 500 installations in the last few years, and in the last two years have been doing a good deal of 12-volt wiring jobs for Amish homeowners.

"Gradually, people are learning what you can do with a solar system," said Reuben Miller. "You can use it for lighting but also for sewing, running mixers, blenders, sweepers, even washing machines."

Reuben, a furniture maker, started the solar business as a sideline about 15 years ago. Now solar is competing with their time to produce handmade furniture, said Jonathon Miller.

That the Amish are embracing a 21st-century technology, having skipped most of the 20th century, is not lost on the younger Miller.