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Sustainable Home Alabama: Striving for solar power in the heart of Dixie
In 2001, Bart Slawson heard a lot of people say “you can’t do that.” An environmental lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama (a phrase that seems like an oxymoron to most), he decided to equip his 2,500 sq. ft. house with a photovoltaic (solar electric) system. “Coal power seems cheap until you realize they’re destroying the whole state of West Virginia to get it,” he says.
At the time, no other residence in Alabama produced power from the sun. “It’s not that people around here don’t care,” Bart says. “It’s that they don’t know what’s possible. Solar panels are rarer than liberals here.”
Bart ordered panels, mounting racks, and an inverter from Gaiam Real Goods. But when he went to Home Depot to buy the necessary wiring, they told him he couldn’t do that.
“They thought I was trying to wire directly into the power lines,” Bart says. The electrician he called to run the wires thought the same thing. So Bart called Gaiam Real Goods back, and they told him how to wire the panels himself. “I waited until my wife was headed out of town one weekend,” he says. “The last thing she said was, ‘I hope I see you alive again.’”
Bart bought some beer, invited a few friends over, mounted everything and wired it up. “The manual said aim ‘em south and angle ‘em the same as the degree of latitude where you live,” Bart says. “After we flipped the switch I went down to look at the electric meter. It had stopped cold.” Then, slowly, as Bart watched, the needle began to roll backwards.
His system was feeding Alabama Power’s grid. “So I called the power company and said, ‘I’m feeding electricity into your grid with my solar panels.’” They told him he couldn’t do that.
Doing it …
The more Bart explained, the more intrigued Alabama Power became. They sent a technician to inspect the system, then installed a $5,000 meter to monitor its output. “They asked me to fill out an application to return power to their grid,” he says, “but they didn’t have one because no one had suggested doing it before.” So Bart used his legal skills to draft the state’s first residential intertie application. Of course, there was no one to approve it — but after a little negotiating, Alabama Power agreed to consider Bart’s house a research project.
So far, Bart has cut his electric bill in half (saving an average of $100 a month) and produced 1.58 mWh of electricity. More important, he’s sparked conversation by showing that it can be done in Alabama. Partnering with the Alabama Environmental Coalition (www.aeconline.ws),
Bart gives tours of the house and speaks to groups interested in solar. “Maybe one day,” he says, “people here considering solar will say, ‘Well that guy Slawson did it.’” In the end, that’s all the payback Bart wants.
Hurricane Ivan wreaked havoc with the Slawsons' system in fall 2004. The storm felled a tree right on top their house, destroying some of their solar electric system components and leaving the panels producing power with nowhere to go. Bart Slawson called Gaiam Real Goods on a rainy post-hurricane afternoon and said, “I am calling you from my phone that is nailed to a tree in my front yard. It’s like a third world country down here right now; please help me get back up and running.” Gaiam Real Goods techs got Bart just what he needed: an upgraded inverter, a bank of batteries for backup — and his system powered up again.
Disaster struck again in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, but this time the storm did no significant physical damage to the Slawsons' home. In fact, the Slawsons' solar electric system kept their home powered up during and after the storm — when thousands of other Alabama residents had no power. Read on.
Tech Specs: Slawson Home's
Solar Electric System
|Solar panels||16 Kyocera 120 Modules|
|Controller||1 MX60 Outback Controller|
||16 185aH Gel Batteries|