During a recent New England ice storm, Chris Anderson and his wife welcomed neighbors to their house for warm showers and hot meals. The town of Peterborough, N.H., had lost power in the storm, but the Anderson home was warm and toasty. “We became a little refuge for friends and family,” the owner recounted. The home’s power kept running because the completely off-grid structure relies on 24 flat-plate solar collectors, a solar thermal hot water system, a 6-kW photovoltaic array, and a backup battery system to provide all its energy, even on stormy days.
But most first-time visitors have no idea the $600,000 home’s energy comes from the sun. The south-facing solar panels are discreetly located on the back of the 3,000-square-foot modern dwelling, which is appointed with all the amenities of any high-end home, including top-of-the-line appliances and electronics. “We didn’t cut any corners,” Anderson said.
Anderson is chief technology officer of Borrego Solar Systems, a California-based company that designs and installs residential and commercial solar energy systems. In building a high-performance home, Anderson said he sought to practice what his company preaches.
Location: Peterborough, N.H.
Builder: Carl Von Mertens and Frost Pond
Timberframes, Dublin, N.H.
Architect: Peter Larsen, San Francisco
Size: 3,000 square feet
- Solar power system
- Propane-powered generator
- Solar thermal hot water system with two water tanks
- Triple-pane windows
- Wood-pellet burner that serves as a back-up source
of heat for the hot water system
- Concrete radiant flooring system throughout the home
- Low-VOC paints
- Energy Star-rated appliances
- Wood products milled from trees on site
- Eco-friendly slag in Portland cement
While solar-powered homes are marketable in the southwestern United States, Anderson’s plan to go off-grid in cool, cloudy New England might sound unorthodox. But after some quick calculations, he knew that there would be plenty of sunshine--even in the winter--to provide adequate power. “We wanted to show that there is enough sun in the area to make solar viable for homes and businesses here in New England,” said Anderson, who moved to Peterborough in 2007 to help run the company’s Boston office.
Installers measured the solar radiance at the home and calculated how many solar panels it would require to be independent of the electrical grid. “It only needs four more solar panels than a house in California does to generate the same amount of power,” he explained.
Besides the solar system, the dwelling sports other energy-saving features, including triple-pane argon-filled windows, spray-foam insulation in the walls, and cellulose insulation in the attic. In keeping with the home’s eco-friendly mission, slag was used in the Portland cement while pine trees from the property were milled on-site for cabinets and sheathing.
“My wife said she likes feeling guilt-free about running the dishwasher, doing laundry, using any type of appliance,” Anderson said. “It’s free energy.”
If wired to the power grid, solar homes can sell back extra energy to the local electrical utility, receiving retail credit for at least a portion of the electricity they generate. Because Anderson’s home is not on the grid, he does not participate in this type of net metering, he said.
THE COST OF SOLAR
At a cost of about $54,000 installed, a solar system like Anderson’s may seem out of reach for many Americans, but he said it doesn’t have to be. He pointed out that, in some areas, the cost can be minimized with special financing deals, rebates, and government incentives, including the solar investment tax credit, extended for eight years in October 2008 as part of Congress’s financial bailout package. In addition, Borrego and similar companies offer power purchase agreement (PPA) programs that allow homeowners to buy a predetermined amount of solar electricity at a low fixed rate, Anderson said. Anderson has a unique viewpoint as owner of a zero-energy home and an executive at a solar company, and he thinks the future looks bright: “Pocketbooks are tighter now but we are finding there’s a ton of interest in solar,” he said. “I think analysts are saying there will be 40% growth in the solar industry this year over last year, and that’s very encouraging.”
He also is betting on continued demand for alternative sources of energy. “The price of oil is down but it’s only a matter of time before it goes back up,” he said.
Anderson’s main focus is living sustainably in comfort and style, a way of life he hopes to pass on to his children. Shortly after moving to the home, Anderson and his wife welcomed their first child, a daughter.
“She’s growing up completely off-grid,” he said. “We’re pretty excited about that.”