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.”


Mission Impossible

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.’”


Homegrown Electricity

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.


UPDATE
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

System Size 2kilowatts
Solar panels 16 Kyocera 120 Modules
Controller    1 MX60 Outback Controller
Inverters   OutBack GVFX3648
Batteries   
16 185aH Gel Batteries

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Comments

Chris B.
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User offline. Last seen 6 years 25 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 09/27/2006

The fact that he had to explain things to the state power company is really funny and just goes to show that knowledge is "power". I just had to laugh at that line - "You can't do that." LOL.

CLD
CLD's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 15 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 07/09/2007

Does anyone have any stories like this from Florida? I live in Orlando and would like to do the same here.

Daryl
Daryl 's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 50 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 01/01/2008

Looking for Solar and Wind power systems south of BHAM ALABAMA myself.

A. Shaneyfelt
A. Shaneyfelt's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 45 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 02/05/2009

Alabama has a new solar installer in Mobile! Gulf South Solar, headquartered in Baton Rouge, LA has opened a Mobile office. Email keven@gulfsouthsolar.com for more information.

mustang
mustang's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 27 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 06/09/2009

You can still call alabama power up and they will tell you that they do not and will not buy back electricity. Over the past 20 years I have came up with many ways to generate electricity,but in the state of alabama you are talking on death ears.
Thanks
Mustang

MsLady
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User offline. Last seen 4 years 51 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 12/23/2009

Actually they do have a program to buy back power now in case you are wondering. The customer service people dont know about it yet, but if you talk to a manager they can direct you to the right person.

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