Rare Powerhouse Under the Sun

Lee Bristol, left, Tim Hannigan and Matt Griffiths carry one of the solar panels to its place on the roof.
Lee Bristol, left, Tim Hannigan and Matt Griffiths carry one of the solar panels to its place on the roof. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

By Tomoeh Murakami Tse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 27, 2006

Monique Hanis and Douglas Warnecke, an environmentally conscious couple from North Arlington, are the first to admit that there are some contradictions in their efforts at energy conservation.

Besides their fuel-efficient Toyota Prius, they own a gas-guzzling minivan. They have an energy-efficient fridge in the kitchen but run a second, watts-gobbling older one in the basement. They use low-flush toilets, but also a bubbling hot tub in the back yard.

This week, however, they made their biggest and most unambiguous move yet toward a greener way of life: They went solar.

From the street, their 2,300-square-foot Colonial looks like any other. But walk around to the back, and 18 gleaming blue photovoltaic panels cover the roof, converting sunlight to electricity. Next week, workers will also install a solar hot water system. The couple expect the two systems to provide about a third of the electricity for the house and much of the hot water.

"We could have a smaller home and limit consumption on that front, so I don't want to get too high on my horse here," Warnecke said. "But if everyone does their thing, in the long run, there's a positive impact."

While solar power is still a niche market, it is getting renewed attention in the face of rising energy costs. Domestic sales of photovoltaic cells almost quadrupled from 2000 to 2004, the most recent data available from the Energy Information Administration.

As of the end of last year, 18,000 homes were equipped with photovoltaic systems connected to the power grid, up from 13,500 the year before and 8,600 in 2003, said Larry Sherwood, a consultant who last year conducted a study about solar installation trends for the Energy Department.

Reasons include new federal and state incentives and falling equipment costs. Noah Kaye, spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said members have reported a spike in consumer interest since the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which among other things put into effect up to a $2,000 federal tax credit for residential solar power systems.

While Maryland, Virginia and the District make up a fraction of the solar market -- Sherwood estimates that there are around 100 properties in the three jurisdictions with grid-connected photovoltaic systems -- the area's share of solar homes could go up this year with both the District and Maryland significantly increasing funding for grants to encourage residential solar systems, he said. Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) last week approved a bill that establishes grants for home solar installations, but it is subject to appropriation of funds by the General Assembly.

A program called "net metering," offered in 40 states and the District, could feed demand. It allows consumers such as Hanis and Warnecke to sell back excess power to utilities at retail prices. So, on sunny days, if their solar system generates more power than is being used, the couple will see their electric meter turn backward.

For Hanis and Warnecke, there was no defining event such as the blackout of 2003 or Hurricane Katrina that prompted them to turn to the sun.

Rather, it was a gradual process marked by a desire to manage soaring energy bills (their electric bill has more than doubled since 2002), cut carbon emissions and teach their children, Jordan, 13, and Dana, 11, about alternative energy sources.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company