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‘Groundhog Day’ man realizes why solar fans love running backward

by Stephen Hesse

Events this month have brought home to me once again the enduring truth of that popular slogan, “Think globally, act locally.”

While watching G8 and G-5 delegates posturing and finger-pointing at the recent summit in Rome, two acquaintances reminded me that real change often begins at home — sometimes up on the roof.

The first was a work colleague who greeted me several mornings in a row with a beaming smile. “Don’t you love this sunshine?” he gushed on the first hot and sticky post-rainy system morning as we rode up the elevator together.

“Not particularly,” I replied.

“I sure do,” he said, his grin spreading wider. “We just hooked up our solar panels, and today the meter is running backward, so we’re selling electricity.”

“That’s great,” I said half-heartedly, surprised by my own apathy — and envy.

The next day we met again. “Beautiful day, isn’t it,” he remarked. And before I could reply, he added (grinning): “I’m selling electricity today, too.”

Trapped in my own real-life version of “Groundhog Day,” a movie in which the actor Bill Murray relives the same day over and over again until he gets it right, I stubbed out my envy and got interested.

From January this year, in an effort to increase domestic use of solar power 10 times by 2020, the Japanese government began subsidizing the installation of solar panels. An earlier policy of subsidies ended in 2005, and soon afterward Japan’s photovoltaic industry lost its global market leadership to European competitors, particularly in Spain and Germany.

Those two nations now have very successful feed-in tariff policies that require utilities to buy electricity generated from solar-power projects (Spain) and renewable-energy sources (Germany) at premium, long-term prices, according to an article by Yingling Liu, writing for the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute (www.worldwatch.org).

Wisely, the Japanese government is getting back into the business with new subsidies. And for those seriously interested, there is a further sweetener: Many cities and prefectures are offering additional subsidies for installing solar panels. For more information, visit the (Japanese only) Web site of the Japan Photovoltaic Expansion Center.

Just days after coming to terms with my panel-envy, a second solar messenger appeared when my mother forwarded an article written by an old acquaintance about her love affair with solar power.

Years ago, Dana Snyder-Grant and I worked together at Old Sturbridge Village, a “living historical museum” in Massachusetts, where interpreters wear authentic period clothing and perform the daily tasks of New Englanders in the early 1800s. I was a broom-maker and shepherd.

We have moved on in era and interests, and I smiled as I began reading Dana’s article, titled “Let the Sun Shine.” There, in the first paragraph, were my current colleague’s exact words.

“It was my husband, Jim’s, idea,” Dana wrote. “He got excited when neighbors, Sal and Linsey, put solar panels on their home in our cohousing community. Linsey’s excitement was catching. ‘Our electric meter is running backward!’ she exclaimed last summer.”

Dana and Jim quickly got hooked on the idea, and a year ago they installed a 3.8 kW array of solar panels. A rebate from the Massachusetts authorities covered 80 percent of the $26,000 cost.

“At the end of last August, the 20 solar panels went up. We turned on the inverter, the instrument that transforms the solar power into energy we can use. In the next 24 hours, we produced 16 kW hours. Our electric meter started running backward during the daytime! And it continued doing so into October,” she noted with delight.

No doubt Dana and Jim’s neighbors noticed the same “running backward” grins as I’d seen on my colleague several days earlier.

Of course it rains, even in southern California, and in New England the clouds can come and stay for weeks. So, For Dana and Jim, the first flush of exultation fizzled as the autumn days shortened and the sun sank in the sky.

“Then came November and my awareness peaked. I learned just how dark those winter days could be. We again received electric bills. But in March, we broke even; our kilowatt production matched our electric use,” Dana said.

You might wonder if running backward encourages waste, or even gluttony. Making all that energy, why not use it? But Dana has found just the opposite.

“I’ve become more conscious of that energy, with an inverter and net meter combined that chart our electricity,” she said. “After seeing our use skyrocket on days we used the dryer, we now dry our laundry on wooden racks. During the final heat wave of August, after our panels were installed, I insisted we resist turning on the air conditioning and use fans instead.”

Running backward appears to be contagious. Dana and Jim’s first inspiration, Linsey, convinced their cohousing community to put solar panels on the community common house.

“I didn’t know if we could manage it with the economic downturn, but more households than I expected donated money. Maybe we wanted and needed to challenge the adversity around us; many felt it was time to change our relationship with energy and the wider world,” Dana wrote.

“Now I look out my study window to see the block design of 52 solar panels on the common house. And I am reminded that it takes a community to sustain ourselves in this changing world.”

For my part, I am reminded of “Time for Plan B,” a publication authored by Lester Brown and his team at the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute.

Rather than viewing the issue of climate change from the perspective of our G8 and G-5 leaders — who focus on “How much of a cut is politically feasible?” — Brown and his colleagues have sought to answer a more important question: “How much of a cut (in carbon-dioxide emissions) is necessary to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change?”

Their answer: We need to cut emissions 80 percent by 2020. Furthermore, this can be done by investing in energy efficiency, replacing fossil fuels with renewable-energy sources for electricity and heat production, and through restructuring our transportation systems, reducing coal and oil use in industry, ending deforestation, planting trees and managing soils.

“None of these initiatives depends on new technologies. We know what needs to be done to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020. All that is needed is leadership,” writes Brown.

For now, however, as our so-called leaders fiddle in Rome and beyond, real leadership will come from individuals, such as my colleague, and Dana and Jim, and their cohousing community.

As the American anthropologist Margaret Mead said (though the wording differs among sources): “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Dana Snyder-Grant is a social worker and a freelance writer living in Acton, Mass. For more information, visit www.snyder-grant.org/dana Stephen Hesse can be reached at: stevehesse@hotmail.com