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Trend toward solar-powered homes catching on in Laurel

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Chip Gribben has been a green kind of guy for a long time. He composts his scraps in his back yard, uses energy-efficient light bulbs and has been driving an electric car for 20 years.

But only last year did he and his wife take one of the biggest steps environmentally minded consumers can take: They installed solar panels on their roof to power their West Laurel house.

This year, Chip and Monica Gribben's house on Holger Court is one of more than 50 solar and green homes — including six in the Laurel area — featured on the annual Washington Metropolitan Area Tour of Solar Homes. The homes will be open this weekend, Oct. 5 and 6, to homeowners interested in taking the solar route themselves.

The tour is part of a national tour of solar homes organized by the American Solar Energy Society to celebrate and advance solar energy. This is the 23rd year of the tour.

"We like to do it because people actually get to see the solar in use," said Chip Gribben, 51, a graphic designer who for years has designed the local tour's guidebook and run its web site. "It helps if you see other people doing it rather than just reading about it. You can actually go and see for yourself how it's working.

"But the real purpose of this," he added, "is not to have the tour anymore. We want solar to be so mainstream that we don't have to put a tour on to talk about it."

 It's an ambitious goal, but one that looks less unrealistic with each passing year.

According to the Maryland Energy Administration, the amount of solar power produced in the state has ballooned from 7.2 megawatts in 2009  to 148 megawatts today — a 200-fold increase. 

"There's been a continuous expansion," said Kevin Lucas, director of policy, planning and analysis for the MEA. Solar energy "is doing great here."

Lucas attributed the increase to lower costs for consumers, including less expensive installation costs and more attractive financing options.

Nationally, the capacity of the solar energy systems has doubled every year for the past five years, according to Seth Masia, executive director of the Boulder, Col.-based American Solar Energy Society, and residential systems have led the way.

As in Maryland, national experts say that the growth nation-wide has been spurred in part by new financing plans that allow homeowners to lease rather than own the solar panels on their roofs — arrangements that slash installation costs.

Such leasing arrangements have been "revolutionary for the industry," Masia said.  "Those up-front costs are the major barrier for most people." He said about 80 percent of homeowners who've installed solar energy systems in the past couple of years have used a leasing arrangement.

The Gribbens, for example, used a leasing system through their Beltsville-based installer, SolarCity, that cut their up-front cost from about $30,000 to $8,000.

"I never thought we could afford solar until this leasing option," Chip Gribben said.

SolarCity in Beltsville is just one of several solar installation companies in the area. One of the newest is Vivint Solar, a Utah-based company that opened a Maryland office — also in Beltsville — in January.

Since it opened eight months ago, the company has installed solar panels in close to 250 Maryland and Washington homes, according to company spokeswoman Kady Cooper.

"We've had phenomenal success," Cooper said. She said the company's power purchase agreement, in which homeowners don't have to put any money down and end up with lower electric bills, has proven popular in Maryland.

"You have a highly educated group of people in the Washington-Maryland area. They're smart consumers," Cooper said. "Not everyone wants to save the environment, but everyone wants to save money."

Lower electricity costs

The Gribbens have 27 panels on the back (south-facing) roof of their Holger Court house, a 5.8-kilowatt array that covers about three-quarters of the roof.

The array was completed in May of last year and provides about 70 percent of the power they need, Chip Gribben said. They still rely on Baltimore Gas and Electric for the balance, he said, but going solar has slashed their electric bills from more than $100 a month to $10 or $20.

The new solar array also charges the Gribbens' electric car — and their electric ride-on mower.

Like the Gribbens, Charles and Judith Goedeke had solar panels installed on their North Laurel house in May of last year: 14 panels to supplement the two they'd installed the previous year to heat their water. Their energy use from BGE now is less than 25 percent of what it was.

Also like the Gribbens, they were a green family long before that. Very green, in fact.

The Goedekes, who live on Patuxent Ridge Way, have landscaped their home to manage runoff and compost their vegetable scraps to use in their flower gardens. They drive a Toyota Prius, use ceiling fans to keep their house cool in all but the hottest weather, and have not used a clothes dryer in five years, instead using drying racks.

They use high-efficiency light bulbs, environmentally friendly cleaning products, shop for used items whenever they can and have installed floors made of stranded bamboo (easily renewable grass) throughout their house.

"We are far from perfect," said Judith, 60. "But we do seriously evaluate our choices and very heavily favor living simply and living well."

Charles, 63, said waiting to install solar was a matter of economics.

"As much as I would've loved to (install the panels earlier), it would have been twice as expensive and not as productive," he said. It would've taken 20 years to break even if they'd installed the panels just a few years ago, he said, but now, they expect to do so in six or eight years.

"So economically it's a good idea, and it's good for the planet," Goedeke said. "It's the old saying: 'Do good while doing well.' "

Organizers hope the solar tour convinces other homeowners to feel the same way.

"We've found the solar tours are very valuable, because people can actually see solar panels in use in a home, see how they work," said John Essig, chairman of the board of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Society, which organized the local event. "And they can get information from real people. … That really helps people learn how solar works, and what it can do for them."

This year's solar home tour will be held Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 5-6.  Guidebooks listing the homes on the tour, including a map and addresses, are available at area MOM (Mom's Organic Market) stores for $5 or can be downloaded for free at solartour.orghttp://www.solartour.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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