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Published: Sunday, 10/3/2004

Alternative energy abundant around region

John Witte holds a solar panel similar to the ones on his garage. They supply 30 percent to 50 percent of his household electricity. John Witte holds a solar panel similar to the ones on his garage. They supply 30 percent to 50 percent of his household electricity.

When he was a student at Harris-Elmore High School in the 1960s, Ralph Semrock built an eight-foot-tall observatory to help him gaze up at the stars with his telescope.

From 1978 to 1981, he ran a business that specialized in solar energy products.

Now he's in the process of building a house in Ottawa County's Allen Township that has his future neighbors abuzz: An irregular-shaped, two-story home encapsulated by so much dirt that it looks like something from a sci-fi movie backed up into a cave.

The berm that covers three-quarters of the base is only the beginning. Before long, people will see solar panels and a wind turbine going up on the property along Curtice EW Road, 10 miles east of Oregon.

There are numerous less-subtle features, such as energy-efficient windows, styrofoam-like insulation, and piping to facilitate the flow of radiant heat from below a seven-inch concrete basement floor. His goal: To be energy self-sufficient six months of the year and rely on FirstEnergy Corp. for no more than half his electricity during any off-peak month.

"People ask me why I don't just build a conventional home," Mr. Semrock said yesterday as he spoke with a group of visitors to Solterra as part of a ninth annual national solar energy tour.

Yes, Solterra. Even his house-under-construction has a name. Sol means sun and terra means earth. The project, expected to be completed in May, was one of a dozen northwest Ohio tour stops in this region.

The tour, sponsored nationally by the American Solar Energy Society and in Ohio by the nonprofit Green Energy Ohio, went beyond solar and included other examples of how renewable energy is being used to offset the draw from the electrical grid.

Ralph and Leah Semrock hold a model of the home they're building in Ottawa County. The home's solar panels and wind turbine will help reduce the Semrocks' energy bills. Ralph and Leah Semrock hold a model of the home they're building in Ottawa County. The home's solar panels and wind turbine will help reduce the Semrocks' energy bills.
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Participants learned how solar is used to help power a pair of Bowling Green elementary schools and make ice for Bowling Green State University's ice arena.

There were examples of how solar-generated power can go virtually unnoticed, such as when sunlight is captured by special shingles on the roofs of Decker Homes in Monclova Township. There were examples of how renewable energy can blend into a building's aesthetics, such as the Toledo Museum of Art's microturbines. And there were examples of how renewable energy can stick out on the vista like a sore thumb, such as Bowling Green's wind farm near the Wood County landfill.

For Mr. Semrock, Solterra is a dream home. He said the added features are costing him about $35,000, but he tells people he has "altruistic reasons" for building something other than a conventional home. "I've always wanted to prove to people that solar and wind work in Ohio," he said.

John Witte, of Maumee, also has a lot of hands-on experience with solar. Through his company, Advanced Distributed Generation, he has installed many of the region's solar panels. His house at 2439 River Rd., part of yesterday's tour, collects enough sunlight on two sets of panels on his garage to produce 30 to 50 percent of his home's electrical needs, he said.

"It exceeded my expectations," Mr. Witte said. He is one of several homeowners who have received grants from the Ohio Department of Development's office of energy efficiency to cover up to half their costs. Homeowners are eligible for as much as $25,000 in grant money under that program for projects that are $50,000 or more. Higher amounts are available to businesses.

Renewable energy proponents are optimistic about the future, especially since the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio authorized "net-metering" a few years ago. That program requires utilities to buy any power that homes and businesses put on the electrical grid, albeit the reimbursement is not at the full retail rate because of the cost that utilities face for maintaining transmission lines and other equipment.

Al Compaan, University of Toledo physics and astronomy chairman, said solar's future in the Toledo-Detroit area is promising because of the proximity to two world leaders in solar products: First Solar LLC, an Arizona-based solar panel manufacturer with a satellite plant in Perrysburg Township along Cedar Park Boulevard; and United Solar Ovonic, which has a facility in suburban Detroit.

The companies build second-generation solar panels that are thinner than their predecessors and more affordable. "Many people look at it as the technology to bring the cost down for the everyday person," he said.

UT has grant ties to both companies and is involved in solar research with various on-campus projects. A new set of solar panels will be installed soon on a yet-unnamed building, he said.

Mr. Compaan said he has helped arrange to have his church, Sylvania's United Church of Christ on Erie Street, install solar panels as part of an upcoming roofing project. And he's planning to install solar panels on his Bancroft Street home, west of Crissy Road.

He said he would love to see those panels produce enough power to recharge an electric truck he owns. "Hopefully, the panels will generate enough electricity during that day that I can say solar electricity is in my truck," he said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.

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