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Plain Dealer Article: Blackout Shines on Solar

08/28/03

Amanda Garrett
Plain Dealer Reporter

When all of Cleveland went dark this month, there was light and music and the distinctive blue flicker of a TV radiating from a house on E. 81st Street.

"People from the neighborhood kept coming over- 'How do you guys still have power?' " said
Qadwi Bey, a renewable-energy specialist. "I told them that we were having a solar cookout."

This month's crippling blackout prompted many to worry about potential future disasters-perhaps weeks without heat or computers or water.

Yet many green-energy advocates were fearless. They sat back, flipped on their solar-charged batteries and relaxed in the light, hoping that people sitting in the dark might notice and finally
take their cause seriously.

"This is probably wrong to say, but I actually got real excited about the blackout," said
Matthew Harris, who owns 8th House Essentials, a Solon renewable-energy-technology
company. He was setting up a display of solar-cooking devices and solar fountains at a farm market in Coventry when the power grid fizzled Aug. 14.

"You have to struggle your entire life and work and work and struggle and struggle to get people
to understand," Harris said. "Then time stopped that day . . . and a door to preach the world of
solar opened."

Very few people live entirely off the electrical power grid in the United States, experts say,
primarily because it costs too much. To generate enough power, homeowners often must
rely on a combination of solar, wind and generator power.

But there are efforts.

About 30 miles outside of Kingman, Ariz., a developer has started building what might be the
first subdivision not connected to the grid. Each of the 487 homes-which bake under 320 days
of sunshine a year - will depend on its own solar energy system, according to The Arizona
Republic. Nationwide, more than 180,000 homes and businesses have installed some form of
solar power systems since 1996, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Most of those systems supplement conventional power sources.

For the year 2001, the U.S. Census Bureau showed that just 24,000 homes used solar energy
as their major heating source. Another 144,000 homes used solar power to heat water.

In Ohio, only several hundred homes rely partially on solar energy, according to Bill Spratley, executive director of Green Energy Ohio, a non-profit group that promotes environmentally
friendly power in the state.

But that's not because solar won't work in Ohio. The state gets about 75 percent of the sunshine that solar-friendly California and Florida do, more than enough to create energy, he said.

Part of the reason so few Ohioans rely on solar energy, Spratley and other green energy
advocates say, is cost. Completely severing from the grid and generating your own power would cost about $40,000 or $50,000 in Ohio, Bey said. Installing solar panels to supplement power already flowing into your home would cost about $20,000.

In California, the state subsidizes homeowners up to about 65 percent of their solar investment, Bey said. In Ohio, there is no such incentive.

Regardless, homeowners' interest may be growing since the blackout. On Saturday, 47 people came to a solar- and wind-energy workshop in Stow sponsored by Green Energy Ohio. It was
the second-largest turnout ever at the groups' workshops.

"And [solar systems engineers] said their phones have been ringing off the hook since the blackout," Spratley said.

Even before the blackout, a few ambitious plans for solar and wind energy were under way in Ohio.

The city of Bowling Green is scheduled to start construction Friday of a wind turbine nearly
400 feet tall. By November, energy from the huge windmill will be flowing into the grid.

Green Mountain Energy, an electricity provider dedicated to cleaner sources of power, is working with four area BJ's Wholesale Clubs to install solar panels on their roofs by year's end.

And in Cleveland, City Council in June approved a plan to spend $3.5 to $4 million on one of the largest solar arrays east of the Mississippi River. Julius Ciaccia, commissioner of water, said his department is still studying the fiscal viability of moving forward.

The solar panels would cover an area larger than two football fields, he said, and provide enough energy for more than 500 homes. Yet, in a blackout situation, the panels couldn't provide enough power to run even one of the city's four pumps providing water to Cleveland and the suburbs.

For the same cost as the solar project, Ciaccia said, the city could buy four backup generators to assure uninterrupted water service.

Whatever happens with the city project, Bey said he believes Ohio is on the cusp of embracing solar energy.

Until recently, Bey's Cleveland-based company, RA Energy, did most of its work outside the state; much in remote areas of Africa far from the electric grid.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, however, Bey said he has fielded more calls from
Clevelanders.

"People are starting to say to themselves, 'I need security. I need something I know is going to work,' " Bey said.

In 1976, when Bey left his job as a research chemist to launch a solar company, he said his
friends and family thought he was crazy, he said.

"They're not calling me crazy any more."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

agarrett@plaind.com, 216-999-4814


© 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.