Abandoned gas station now pumps energy self-reliance

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

An abandoned gasoline station, once the universal symbol of modern society's dependence on nonrenewable energy sources, now pumps conservation and alternative energy know-how near the Oakland-Berkeley line.

It is the home of Alternative Energy Collective and Solar Station Inc., where in the American traditions of self-reliance and neighborliness, a small group of dedicated people is proving that the nation's energy challenge can be met at the grass-roots level as well as in the corridors of power.

Actually, there's a lot more concrete than grass in the modest area where the Alternative Energy Collective and Solar Station Inc. have taken over the gas station and made it into a model of energy self-sufficiency. It's the headquarters for a self-help energy conservation effort that generates its own momentum and funding rather than waiting around for government aid.

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An example of what can be done on a small scale, the Solar Station is completely independent of all energy sources except the sun, wind, and human muscle-power. It has a 400-watt wind turbine, and when the wind isn't available, a set of sturdy marine batteries stores wind-generated power. It is heated entirely through the use of a greenhouse on the south side (where ''grease monkeys'' used to work on the undersides of autos) and a ''thermal mass'' glass water tank that absorbs the sun's heat by day and expels it at night.

The Alternative Energy Collective (AEC) and Solar Station may be unique in some respects, but they have many ''cousins'' across the US. An official at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says there are more than 10 ,000 community self-help organizations in the nation. They are working for better housing, health care, and other human welfare goals. The HUD source - who was in the department's neighborhoods office before it was discontinued - says there are scores of local groups in the conservation/alternative energy field.

An unusual feature of the Oakland organization is the ''symbiotic'' relationship between AEC and Solar Station. They share the former gas station that is now a ''solar station,'' and they were founded by the same people. AEC is nonprofit; Solar Station is profitmaking - but most of its earnings go back into the neighborhood energy programs run by AEC. The five full-time people on the collective staff get a ''subsistence'' wage - $400 a month.

Here's how it works: Solar Station provides energy audits, solar potential evaluations, designs for solar installations, and consultation for businesses or homeowners. It sells solar products such as water heaters and window greenhouses and an energy conservation package with weatherstripping and water heater ''blankets.''

The firm also contracts to build custom solar installations, and to assist homeowners or other customers in putting up solar devices. It assists schools, neighborhood organizations, and city governments in building alternative energy devices or constructing exhibits.

The AEC, which has a current membership of about 300, conducts energy classes both in its headquarters and at Vista Community College in Berkeley. It provides ''hands-on'' workships in which participants not only learn how to make various devices and weatherproof their residence, but actually see the work done on a participant's home.

The collective maintains a 500-volume library in the solar station - including a collection of alternative energy books, periodicals, slides, and research documents. And it conducts programs to familiarize children with ''energy, its forms and uses, and give them hands-on involvement with energy devices.''

The energy collective works in an area where there are more tenants than homeowners. In many cases, says one worker, a resident can spend $40-to-$50 to weatherize a rented home (not including ceiling or wall insulation) and pay for it in utility bill savings within a year.

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