Sun Power

Switch on to the Solar

    Imagine this. You fancy a couple of slices of toast for breakfast. You jump on a stationary bicycle and peddle furiously for 10 minutes. Voila! You get your toast.
    If this sounds weird, you couldn’t have been watching the exploits of Ed Begley Jr. on HGTV Sunday nights. And no, he’s not on a diet that requires burning his calories before he eats them.
What Begley is in fact doing on his hectic dawn bike ride to nowhere is creating energy to run the kitchen toaster. Living with Ed, reality TV that is bringing green right into the mainstream,with humor, invites viewers to get up close and personal with Earth-friendly actor Begley. He is shown at home with his wife, Rachelle Carson, who gets exasperated by her hubby’s one-track passion.
    He drives an electric car. He chases the sun around his garden with a solar oven so that he can cook the veggies he grows—organically, naturally. He comes up with novel ways to save rainwater. It’s all about sustainable living, and in Begley’s case, sometimes-wacky inventiveness. His exploits have been gaining in popularity week by week since the show launched in January.
    You’ve probably guessed by now that the bike responsible for the bread getting toasted is hooked to batteries that run a fully solar-powered house. We’ve come a long way since Ronald Reagan removed the 34 solar collectors Jimmy Carter installed on the White House roof in 1979 while he was president.
    The Economist magazine in November 2006 noted that the clean-energy business is turning into the next big investment boom. Where green enthusiasts were once sidelined and disparaged as tree-huggers and hippies, it has been speculated that Governor Schwarzenegger easily won re-election in no small part because of his enthusiasm for environmental regulation. California is now at the solar power forefront. In the drive popularly called “One Million Solar Roofs,” the state will pay $2.9 billion in rebates over 10 years to homes and businesses that install solar panels.
    All this has made life as bright as sunshine on a winter day for longtime Berkeley solar-energy advocate Gary Gerber, who drives a solar-charged electric car, wears a solar-powered watch, runs his fleet of vehicles on biodiesel—and effectively operates a toaster, sans pedal-pushing, in his fully solar-powered home.
    Gerber, who founded his company, Sun Light & Power, 30 years ago, has lived with his commitment to renewable energy since a time when only a few forward-thinking people were doing anything in the field. In 1973, the then-student engineer took the first solar class ever offered at the University of California, Berkeley. In the early years of his solar business, he maintained himself by selling cheese from a Volkswagen van. But since 2002, he affirms, the demand for his company’s solar power, or photovoltaic, installations has grown by about 66 percent annually.
    The first question he’s generally asked, he says, is, “Can I eliminate my electricity bill?” And his answer is yes—depending on the size of the unit you want to invest in and how heavy a user you are. “PG&E allows you to build up a credit on your account for up to 12 months,” he says. “A properly designed system will overproduce in the summer and let you use your credit in the winter.”
    The most common reason people give for wanting to go solar, he says, is the desire to operate in the most sustainable manner possible. “That’s the feel-good side. You know you’re reducing carbon dioxide and therefore helping with global warming.”
    Solar is just one piece of the total energy solution, Gerber stresses. His second car is a Prius. “Hybrids are great, but they’re still gasoline vehicles,” he notes. “What I’m looking for is a biodiesel hybrid.”
    The upfront cost of solar, he admits, can seem daunting. But, he points out, users are investing in the future. Roughly halfway through the life of the system, it will have paid for itself. And as he stresses, “You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution,” he syas. It’s a solution that’s effortless, compared to what Ed Begley would have us believe.

By Wanda Hennig

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