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Catching some sun on Berea’s solar tour

On October 3, Berea Residents and Sustainable Berea hosted their 4th annual tour of Solar Homes.

A Berea resident's home with solar panels

Many visitors setting foot onto Berea’s campus for the first time might be perceptive enough to notice large blue glass panels mounted onto buildings or on top of poles above the blue light safety phones. In fact, there are many who come to Berea who have never seen solar panels before. Even more surprising, is the number of people who live and work in the City of Berea, who have no idea how solar technology works or are unaware how many residences in Berea have solar panels mounted on their homes. In order to educate more people about the benefits of solar technology and Berea’s net metering program, this year Berea College participated in Sustainable Berea’s annual Solar Tour of Homes.

The tour, which featured the solar units and energy conservation techniques used on thirteen residences in Berea was organized by Sustainable Berea and supported by MACED and KySES. The solar tour was created in order to provide visitors the opportunity to learn more about solar energy, pricing and insulation. The tourists also learned about energy conserving retrofits, or modifications that could be used to reduce energy consumption and the cost of converting to solar fixtures some were considering to use in their homes. Visitor’s drove in caravans, rode on guided bus tours or explored these residences on foot just to see the glistening solar panels and understand what all the fuss was about as they compared the energy saved and costs of implementing this wide array of designs.

Homeowners answered questions about insulation, photovoltaics, and conservation tips they could use to reduce energy costs and save money in their homes. Many of the homes featured energy saving appliances, solar hot water heaters, or wood or gas burning stoves that could be used as energy alternatives to reduce the energy consumption. And many of the homeowners felt proud to be doing more for the Appalachian community by choosing solar over the coal production responsible for mountain top removal to power their homes. Many of the homeowners recommended insulating, expanding south facing windows and retrofitting appliances like water heaters to make the homes more energy efficient. All of the homes included inverters, a public monitoring device that displayed the output of solar energy captured and explained in the context of kilowatt hours. These devices were used to explain how energy costs were kept low using Berea’s net metering program, which allow residents with solar installations to add solar electricity back to the City of Berea’s power grid.

According to Cheyenne Olson-- one of the homeowners on the tour and a Board member of Sustainable Berea-- the Olsons keep an itemized list of the costs of installation and materials needed for many of their solar and conservation projects. They have added hardwood floors made of recycled barnwood. “We have solar panels so that we can say that we add a little bit to the absence of mountaintop removal”. They try to keep the lights turned off and have replaced all of their light bulbs with more energy efficient models. The Olson’s home, which was included in the tour has a very tight envelope, meaning that it is efficient to heat and cool. The Olsons use Solar energy, awnings to keep south facing windows cool during the day, a rainwater catch, burned earth walls, south facing windows, thermally insulated walls, floors and ceilings, and a solar air exchange, to use 10% of the energy usage used in a normal Kentucky household, among other modifications. During the 2009 ice storm, the Olson’s home was one of the few homes in the City of Berea equipped to house displace neighbors and students from the college, even without electricity prevented by net metering.

The Bruce Trades Building-- which houses the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center-- and the environmentally constructed SENS House at Berea College were also featured on the tour. The Bruce Trades Building was recently retrofitted with solar panels in the summer of 2009. Accompanying the installation in the Appalachian Center’s gallery was an exhibit created by the Artifacts and Exhibits Studio titled “Energy and Appalachia,” used to teach visitors about the relationships among energy use, lifestyle, resource extraction, and Appalachian communities.

The solar panel behind Berea’s SENS house displayed a rotating solar installation used to track the sun throughout the day, which allows them a greater amount of energy production and a much lower rate of energy consumption. The Sustainable and Environmental Studies program at Berea, is known for its ecological design and sustainability practices including; organic flat raised gardening, compostable toilets, and composting. The SENS program is used to teach Berea College students practical methods of conservation and methods to increase community resilience.

Mrs .Olson believes there are about 27 solar installations in the City of Berea; some of which have solar electric, others have solar hot water. One of the homeowners reported that the amount of energy they produced in their home, along with energy conservation practices allowed them to achieve “net zero” energy consumption, in which the solar panel upon their home generated enough solar electrical energy to put back onto the power grid more than they were using during the periods when there was no sunlight.

To learn more about the Berea Solar Tour, the SENS Program, or Sustainable Berea, contact Richard Olson at richard_olson@berea.edu.

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