Solar power enthusiasts see blackout as boon

CLEVELAND (AP) - While millions were left in the dark during the nation's worst blackout, Matthew Harris wasn't among them.
Harris, who owns 8th House Essentials, a renewable-energy-technology company, was setting up a display of solar-cooking devices and solar fountains at a farm market when the Aug. 14 blackout darkened homes and businesses in eight states and parts of Canada.
The blackout affected 50 million people, shut down more than 100 power plants and knocked Cleveland's water supply off line.
"You have to struggle your entire life and work and work and struggle and struggle to get people to understand," Harris said. "Then time stopped that day ... and a door to preach the world of solar opened."
Since the blackout, interest in alternative forms of power appears to be growing for many homeowners. On Saturday, 47 people attended a solar- and wind-energy workshop in Stow sponsored by Green Energy Ohio, a nonprofit group that promotes environmentally friendly power in the state. It was the second-largest turnout for one of the group's workshops.
"And solar systems engineers said their phones have been ringing off the hook since the blackout," said Bill Spratley, executive director of Green Energy Ohio.
The U.S. Census Bureau showed that 24,000 homes used solar energy as their major heating source in 2001. Another 144,000 homes used solar power to heat water.
In Ohio, only several hundred homes rely partially on solar energy, Spratley said. The small number of users is partly the result of the high cost of going solar, he said.
Completely severing from the grid and generating your own power would cost about $40,000 or $50,000 in Ohio, said Qadwi Bey, a renewable-energy specialist. Installing solar panels to supplement power already flowing into your home would cost about $20,000.
Several plans to bring more solar and wind energy to Ohio were underway before the blackout.
The city of Bowling Green is scheduled to start construction of a wind turbine on Friday. By November, energy from the huge windmill should be flowing into the grid.
Green Mountain Energy, an electricity provider dedicated to cleaner sources of power, is working with four Cleveland-area BJ's Wholesale Clubs to install solar panels on their roofs by year's end.
City Council in June approved a plan to spend $3.5 million to $4 million on one of the largest solar arrays east of the Mississippi River.
The solar panels would cover an area larger than two football fields and provide enough energy for more than 500 homes. However, in a blackout, the panels couldn't provide enough power to run even one of the four pumps providing water to Cleveland and its suburbs.
For the same cost as the solar project, the city could buy four backup generators to assure uninterrupted water service, said Julius Ciaccia, commissioner of water.
Whatever happens with the project, Bey said he believes Ohioans are on the verge of embracing solar energy.
"People are starting to say to themselves, 'I need security. I need something I know is going to work,'" Bey said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)