Noe Valley Voice March 2001

"Green House" in Upper Noe Is a Real Turn-on

By Heidi Anderson

California's acute power crisis, which has hit Noe Valley with rolling blackouts and soaring PG&E bills over the past two months, has awakened an energy conscience in many residents. Some are changing their light bulbs, turning their water heaters down, and cleaning the coils on the back of their refrigerators. Others are seriously considering an alternative energy source for their homes.

Steve, a resident of Upper Noe Valley for 20 years, smiles warmly and nods at this news. You could say he's got the alternative energy thing covered.

Or rather, it's covering him. On the roof of his home and within his walls are structures that not only collect energy in alternative ways but also make better use of that energy.

Steve would prefer to go by his first name because he's a bit leery of publicity these days. Several people who've noticed the windmills perched on his roof have knocked on his door to ask for a tour. He doesn't mind sharing information about his windmills and solar panels, but he'd rather not become a regular stop on the "green home" circuit.

Still, he agreed to give the Voice a peek at the three-story Victorian he shares with his wife Lynn, to show how his system works. He also wanted to demonstrate how he saves money as well as energy, and tell us what he has learned through several years of trial and error.

First Step: Harness the Sun

Steve began fulfilling his dream of an energy-friendly home about seven years ago during a home renovation. A passionate solar advocate for 25 years and a building contractor himself, Steve saw it was time to make use of his knowledge.

First, he took advantage of the fact that the back of his house faces south. He created a "Trombe" wall (named after French engineer Felix Trombe) to soak up the sunshine. This is a passive solar heat collection system that traps heat between glass and a black-painted concrete wall. Cold air from inside the home is drawn up through small openings at the bottom of the wall, heated by the sun in the space between the glass and concrete, naturally pushed (warm air rises, remember) through small openings at the top, and circulated back into the room.

On a chilly 55-degree morning, Steve and Lynn's living room can be warmed to 75 degrees without the use of gas or electricity. A greenhouse full of orchids and hibiscus has been built around part of the Trombe wall to take further advantage of the free heat.

Above the greenhouse, on the roof, sit 20 photovoltaic (the technical term for solar) panels. Large trays of silicon wafers under glass collect light from the sun, then convert it to electrical current. Each panel is about 31/2 feet square and looks like something you'd see on Spacelab (that's because they're the same kind of panels, Steve notes). They're also a larger version of the panels you see facing the sky on the call boxes along the highway.

On an average sunny Noe Valley day, the panels on Steve and Lynn's roof create about 12 kilowatts of electricity. But their 3,000-square-foot house, with its refrigerator, stove, lights, TV, and computers, uses a bit more than that on an average day.

"I can get consumption down to about 18 to 20 kilowatts per day if I really try to conserve," says Steve. So the panels help, but they don't eliminate the household's need to use electricity from PG&E.

Next to the photovoltaic panels is a less space-age device that simply collects heat from the sun to create hot water. Before water from the city's system goes into Steve and Lynn's hot-water heater in the basement, it is pumped up to the roof, shot through copper tubes (painted black for maximum heat absorbency), and then sent back down to the basement water heater.

On a normal winter day, this rooftop panel can heat water to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Steve points out proudly that his traditional hot-water heater only has to heat the water a few more degrees to reach normal hot-shower temperature. And that's any season of the year.

"You don't have to have a warm day, just a sunny one," he says.

And, true to Steve's goal of conserving energy no matter how it's produced, the house is insulated with recycled newspaper, which was blown wet into the walls during remodeling.

Windmills Need a Steady Gale

Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of this Noe Valley home is the pair of windmills that sit atop the roof, ready to convert those fierce gusts of Noe Valley wind into energy to run the coffeemaker. However, says Steve, the windmills don't quite cut it in his neighborhood.

"They aren't as effective as I'd hoped," he says. "I think they'd have to be a hundred feet higher--at least--to catch enough wind."

Steve has learned through his windmill experiment that it's not the bursts of wind that do the trick, but rather, heavy, sustained winds. "I thought Noe Valley wind would be enough, but I suggest to anyone who wants to do this that they use a wind gauge first to test their spot."

The windmills will be coming down soon to make room for some more light-converting photovoltaic panels. The addition, he hopes, will give him the extra eight kilowatts he needs to power the home completely on a conservative-use day.

Making the Meter Run Backward

Weak winds or lack of roof space are some of the obstacles you face when building a green home, Steve says. But the toughest hurdle can be the permit and inspection process.

Steve sorts through bulging files and rattles off several names of officials he had to contact in order to get his system approved. "You've got to really want to do this. It's a fair amount of paperwork."

He and his wife dealt with numerous state, city, and PG&E officials. He remembers one inspection where a representative from all three agencies had to attend. He says his professional experience as a contractor on commercial buildings came in handy.

Another hindrance is, of course, money. Steve did some of the work himself, and some of it was done by other professionals. Just installing the solar panels, the system for converting the current, and the equipment for monitoring it all put him back about $20,000. With a rebate from the California Energy Commission, the project ended up costing him $11,000.

Which, according to Steve, is darned attractive nowadays.

"It used to be you could make your money back with lower PG&E bills in 15 to 20 years. Now," he laughs, "based on the rates we're looking at now, it'd take only about five years."

But he and Lynn have seen a payback already, one he boasts about like a proud papa: If their electricity consumption is less than the electricity their system is generating, the meter at the house actually runs backward.

To demonstrate, he darts around the house to shut down a computer here and a light switch there. Then he runs to the PG&E meter at the front of the house and --voila, the dial is spinning backwards.

When that happens, Steve says, he gets kilowatt credits, which will be averaged into next year's PG&E bill.

A Hybrid Car to Match

Not one to limit himself to sun and wind, Steve also owns a Toyota Prius, a hybrid car that combines a gas engine with an electric motor. His favorite part about the car is that when he uses the brakes, kinetic energy is converted to electricity. This means the car recharges itself, so there's no need to plug it in at night.

Steve also reports that the family's clothes washer is kaput, so he and Lynn will soon purchase an Energy Star­rated, front-loading washer that uses a third less water and soap than standard top-loaders.

Back up on the roof to show where the new solar panels will be squeezed in, Steve gestures toward all the panel-less, sun-resistant rooftops across Noe Valley.

"You know, if an eighth of energy users here in California installed 20 panels like this on their roofs, we wouldn't have an energy crisis."

Green Resources

For more information on how to become a sun catcher, or for more energy-saving techniques, Steve recommends that you try these sources:

* Solar Depot (sells solar electric and hybrid power systems): 1-800-822-4041 or

* Real Goods Trading Company (a store with "a broad range of tools for independent living" in Ukiah, Calif.):
1-707-744-2100 or

* California Energy Commission (for rebates on installing solar, wind, or other eligible systems): 1-800-555-7794 or

* San Francisco Toyota (hybrid car Prius): 415-750-8300 or

* Energy Star (a department of the Environmental Protection Agency)
1-888-782-7937 or