Northwest Ohioans who have lived through a typical gray, overcast winter might have trouble adjusting to the idea that the area was tagged this summer by Gov. Ted Strickland as the "solar hub" of the state.
That designation was a reference to the successful creation of businesses and jobs based on Toledo-based research, innovation, and manufacturing of solar photovoltaic panels.
A small but growing number of area families have created their own solar hubs at home, becoming local pioneers of hands-on photovoltaic use. Solar manufacturers hope millions of Americans will follow suit and create a domestic market for solar panels already accepted in Europe.
Many area solar electricity users have dabbled in other energy saving practices such as hybrid or electric vehicles. Some are already using water heated by solar. But now, encouraged by state subsidies and federal tax credits, they have invested thousands of dollars in the belief they can reduce dramatically their current energy costs and perhaps someday reach residential solar Nirvana — free energy.
Ken Green of Woodville turned on the solar panels perched on his barn roof in May.
"My first electrical bill afterward was $18," he says. "The month before it was $151."
The sixth grade science teacher and farmer did significant research before investing in the panels that turn sun into electricity because a lot of money was involved.
His system, an inverter to change the direct current created in the panels to alternating current, meter and connections to the electrical provider added up to a $59,000 project. His out-of-pocket costs were eased by a $25,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Development and by a 30 percent federal tax credit.
Like most solar installations there is no on-site battery storage. Homeowners use the commercial electrical grid like a giant battery, pumping current into the system when their panels are active, taking current out at night when they are not.
The transactions are metered in either direction and at the end of the month, the homeowner pays the difference in what he's generated compared to what he's used. Green foresees the day when the exchange works in his favor or when he can sell energy credits to an electrical supplier and someday actually make money from his system.
He considered a wind turbine as an energy source, but felt over time a windmill's moving parts would require maintenance. He thinks his solar panels will not need any.
Green says he maxed out his credit cards to pay for the system.
"I figured the cost was about the same as a nice used pick-up. The nice thing about this, it will be saving me money in the future when a vehicle would be costing," he says.
There are other pay backs for Green, who cited the environmental benefits and reducing the need for foreign oil as reasons to support solar technology.
The man who has installed most of the residential PV systems in northwest Ohio says Green is representative of his solar customers
John Witte estimates his company, Advanced Distributed Generation of Toledo, has installed 11 systems in the area — including Green's — since he became one of the first certified installers in the state 12 years ago.
"The early adopter is environmentally conscious," he says. "The cost is expensive. Our customers are doing it for the long term. They're not thinking ‘Oh, good, free electricity.' Even though that may happen eventually, they're doing it for other reasons."
Witte client Jodi Haney concurs. A professor of environmental studies at Bowling Green State University, she says "I thought it was time to practice what I preach."
The Maumee resident began looking into installing solar panels five years ago. Three years ago the availability of the state grant and federal tax credit made her $42,000 system financially possible.
Her 18 roof mounted panels, each 2 feet by 4 feet, manufactured enough electricity to cut her electrical bills in half. She added two more panels and installed a thermal solar system to heat water in the family pool.
"I'm still a pioneer," Haney says. She believes her system will be paid off in 12 to 14 years and in the meantime she's "giving to the earth."
While Green and Haney took advantage of financial incentives to install solar panels, a Bowling Green family has spent $17,000 on its own in adopting solar electricity.
"We started three years ago by purchasing a single 80 watt solar panel because of a curiosity in renewable energy," Charles Anderson says. He participated last year in the Green Energy Ohio (GEO) Solar Tour and described in its program how his family became interested.
"Once we started to learn the principles of renewable energy production, it became somewhat of a challenge for us," he says on the tour's Web site. They have since doubled their panel capacity, added a wind turbine, given away their garage freezer, and begun conscientious energy conservation.
Green Energy Ohio is a non-profit that supports all kinds of energy efficiency and offers information and support to Ohioans interested in adopting renewable energy. GEO organizes the state into regions for an annual Solar Tour, which was last weekend. The Andersons and Haneys were part of the tour in 2009, showing their installations to people guided to their homes by GEO. Last year more than 5,000 people visited the solar displays.
GEO director William Spratley believes many people who went on the tour and learned about the technology were interested in trying solar but were cautious.
"We think the fact that people are not spending money is a reflection on the economy right now," he says.
There are 15 homes in northwest Ohio powered at least in part by solar electric. The state energy resources division of the Department of Development says they are among the 180 homes statewide that have been supported by grants it has awarded. The money for the grants has come from a monthly 9-cent surcharge collected from every utility consumer in Ohio. Legislation which created the fund is set to expire within year, according to Spratley.
Supporters of home solar installation would like to see Ohio adopt laws that allow a homeowner to be able to finance a solar system and put the debt on his or her property tax, passing it along with the property if it were sold.
Requirements that utilities generate some electricity from a renewable source is another plus for solar technology adoption.
Spratley believes Ohio's day in the sun is coming.
"The day will come when it's as easy to buy a solar system as any appliance," he says.