Soldier's Grove taps the sun; Solar energy: trimming fuel bills for families, towns

More and more American home-buyers are looking to the sun to keep their fuel bills low. Although the number of solar homes remains small -- the US Department of Energy (DOE) estimates a total of about 200,000 -- the rate of growth has picked up markedly since the 1973 Arab oil embargo. At that time there were fewer than 100 solar homes. Federal experts expect the current total to double by the end of this year.

Many large developers and commercial builders still shy away from what they see as the risks involved in solar design and the uncertainty of any economic advantages over convention homes. But the ranks of custom-built homes and of architects specializing in solar design continue to grow.

"Active" systems usually depend on roof-mounted solar collectors and moving parts to store and distribute the sun's energy to heat water or living space. "Passive" systems can be as simple as a south-facing window near a thermal mass such as a wall to receive and store the heat.

Most owners of solar homes -- with some angry exceptions -- find they pay less on monthly fuel bills. Douglas Blount of Palos Park, Ill., has a combination active and passive solar system built into his home, a wood stove, and a gas furnace for cooking and hot water. He paid only $109 for extra fuel last year. He expects to pay no more this year.

"If a home has a clear shot at the sun, generally it's [solar design] going to be economical at some point," suggests Rodney Wright, the architect who designed Mr. Blount's house. But he cautions that extensive insulation and good thermal efficiency are vital ingredients for any successful solar design.

Mr. Wright, principal author of a new, advice-filled paperback entitled "Passive Solar House Book," is president of the Hawkweed Group, one of the nation's leading solar architectural firms.

The firm has designed more than 300 solar buildings since 1973. These include numerous homes in the Midwest -- where some residents still look skeptically at solar energy -- as well as a fire station, motel, day-care center , and housing for the elderly.

The most ambitious Hawkweed project is a plan to rebuild the center of tiny Soldiers Grove, Wis. The town, repeatedly damaged by floods from the nearby Kickapoo River, decided two years ago to move, lock, stock, and barrel, to higher land. So far, about five of the proposed 25 to 30 buildings are complete. Although not all residents are happy with the results so far, the town -- with some obvious pride -- bills itself as "the nation's first solar village."

Cecil Turk, owner of the Soldiers Grove IGA grocery store, one of the completed solar buildings, says his store is hooked up for gas as a backup. But he has yet to turn on the pilot light. Instead, he has relied on fans circulating waste heat from food refrigeration units and the long fiber-glass panels in the attic, which draw in the sun. He estimates that the attic solar system cost him an extra $7,000, but he thinks it will be worth it.

"The system has already been put to the test," he insists. "It's been through a winter where it hit 20 below."

Mike Maybaum, a DOE expert on passive solar energy, agrees that there is still a "consumer awareness" problem. Many people still feel that solar is five to 10 years away, he says. Builders and large developers are particularly skittish, he says, because they want actual data on how much solar designs can save and on how fast and how profitably solar homes resell.

"It's easy to get estimates, but they want hard cost-of-performance data," Mr. Maybaum says. Until such solid statistics are available and more widespread examples of large-scale solar developments exist so builders can see and walk through models, he says Americans are not likely to see many more large-scale developers and builders going solar.

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