Solar Investment Pays Off for Maryland Couple

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

CENTREVILLE, Md. -- While people around him fret about their escalating utility bills and vent at their politicians, Al Schnoebelen looks out his triple-paned living room window and feels pretty lucky.

Last month's energy charges from Delmarva Power? A mere $3.35. With taxes and surcharges more than doubling the bill, Schnoebelen wrote a check this week for a whopping $10.65.

And that was relatively high. Before a failing propane freezer was replaced with an electric one last year, Schnoebelen and his wife, Nancy, paid about 35 cents a month before taxes.

The couple's 2,000-square-foot, two-bedroom Eastern Shore bungalow has been powered by the sun for 19 years. In the yard, sunlight beats down on six panels placed four feet above the ground and facing south. Silicon wafers in the panels convert the sunlight to electricity. The sun also heats the house directly, hitting the windows of the greenhouse off the living room and skylights cut in the 19-foot ceilings. On winter's coldest days, the Schnoebelens fire up their wood-burning stove. Only the hot water heater runs on conventional electricity.

"If I tell someone, I pay this for utility bills, they say, 'No you don't,' " said Schnoebelen, 73, who built catamarans in Annapolis until he retired six years ago. On Monday afternoon, the indoor thermostat read 78 degrees. "If you don't pay attention, it'll get too warm in here."

Concerns about climate change and a new president pushing green energy are breathing life into renewable power. But the Schnoebelens were solar pioneers when Jimmy Carter installed solar panels in the White House as a symbolic step toward energy independence. In 1980, the couple bought 25 acres a mile off Coon Box Road, 28 miles from the Bay Bridge, and built a solar-heated cabin. Ten years later, they moved into their bungalow, designed by a solar architect to keep the heat inside in the winter and out in the summer.

In the summer, they spend only $30 a month on air conditioning, because the house is shaded by 120-foot poplars and oaks. In February, the Schnoebelens used 29 kilowatts of power, one-thirty-third of the energy consumed by the average utility customer.

Washington Gas's average bill was $261.87 that month; Pepco's, $150.38; and Baltimore Gas and Electric's, $166. Those prices -- the result of cold weather, high natural gas and oil prices and deregulation -- have led to widespread consumer anger.

For a long time, the Schnoebelens were totally off the grid, paying nothing. Then their backup generator died, and in March 2007, they called up Delmarva Power and opened an account.

Schnoebelen likes to call himself the "original hippie." He's a military brat from San Francisco who sold surfboards in Virginia Beach years ago. He swims five mornings a week and right now is fighting the closure of his local pool because of budget cuts. But he said he's no activist. It's Nancy Schnoebelen, 64, a retired psychiatric nurse, who is the environmentalist. "For me it was really the pressure of money," he said.

The solar system cost $4,200. It was shipped in a box from a California company: three batteries and transformers to convert the sun's low-voltage power to AC current. The company went out of business when the solar fad of the 1970s and 1980s faded.

Today, there's new technology for those who follow the Schnoebelens' path. But the start-up costs are significant, at $8,000 to $40,000, depending on how much power the system produces, officials with the Maryland Energy Administration said.

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