Energy Independence Day

By Steve Donohue

Seventeen years ago when my wife and I went house shopping, we looked for a home with large kitchen windows that would let the sun stream in because I knew this would help heat the house and save energy.

As an environmental scientist in EPA’s Office of Environmental Innovation in Philadelphia, I try to practice what I preach by doing everything I can to save energy at home. Many of my efforts are simple like switching to LED light bulbs and hanging my clothes to dry on the clothes line instead of wasting energy with a power-hogging dryer. Other efforts were a bit more complicated like crawling around in my attic to seal up drafts and add insulation. There were even some unexpected jobs too, like fixing the hole my son made by stepping through the ceiling while he was helping me. I knew these improvements would pay for themselves in no time and they did – reducing our power use by almost 50 percent.

In 2010, we decided to tackle the supply side of the equation by installing photovoltaic solar panels. This was not an easy decision. I wasn’t worried about the technology because I have a solar calculator from 1980 that still works fine, but the return on our investment was supposed to take five years, and by then I knew I would need some cash to replace my aging truck. On the plus side, our roof was new and the slope was just right for installing solar panels. After considering all factors, we decided to take the plunge and get full benefit of tax breaks, financing and rebates offered by Pennsylvania and the federal government. Also, it was nice to know in our own small way we were creating “green jobs” for a local contractor and a factory in Kentucky where the solar panels were manufactured.

A few days after the 4th of July in 2010 we had our own “energy” Independence Day. It has been great! We have had zero maintenance and we get credited for any electricity we don’t use that is sent out to the grid. In 2011, we generated 84 percent of our own electricity, spending less than $260 for power that year. Our goal is to have a net zero energy house in 2012 by swapping out our 17-year old refrigerator.

Sounds good right? Well almost. The market for clean power tanked and our payback is now more like 10 years. So, it looks like I’ll be keeping my old truck a little longer. In the mean time, I tell everyone my new truck is on the roof!

About the author: Steve Donohue has been an environmental scientist at EPA for over 20 years. Currently, he works in the Office of Environmental Innovation in Philadelphia where he is focused on greening EPA and other government facilities.