New Smyrna Beach, Fla., Owners Are Happy with Solar-Powered Homes
By Ludmilla Lelis, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla. -- July 29, 2002
No matter how hot it gets, Peter Palazzotto keeps cool about electricity bills. In fact, he welcomes the summer sun, knowing that the powerful light will provide his home with all the juice it needs.
Solar panels on his roof generate plenty of power for his super-energy-efficient home, so much that he sometimes is in the enviable position of selling the surplus back to the local utility.
"In the summer I break even. But in the winter, they usually owe me $10 to $20," said Palazzotto, a part-time builder who is always happy to show off his house. "I hardly ever pay for electricity."
The Sunshine State may seem a natural place for a solar-energy home, but houses like Palazzotto's are rare. Solar technology is still too expensive for most homeowners, which is what makes New Smyrna Beach unique.
Thanks to an aggressive program by the Utilities Commission, New Smyrna Beach has become a solar-energy leader in Florida, said Jennifer Szaro, energy analyst with the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa.
Though solar-powered water heaters and pool heaters are common, only about 100 homes in Florida have solar-energy systems producing electricity for the actual home, she said. New Smyrna Beach has nine of them, with three more planned for this fall.
"They actually offer one of the lowest prices in the country for solar," Szaro said. "It's remarkable for a utility of that size."
Larger utilities, such as those in Orlando and Jacksonville, have installed solar-energy systems at schools, but many of the projects have been for demonstration purposes, Szaro said. The JEA in Jacksonville, formerly called the Jacksonville Electric Authority, plans to start a homeowners program, but the incentives aren't as good as in New Smyrna Beach, she said.
Nearly four years ago, the Volusia beach town started its solar-energy program to coincide with plans for a new power plant. Though the plant is on hold until next year, New Smyrna continued with its solar program, installing systems not only at the nine homes but also at an elementary school and the municipal golf course, said electrical engineer Gregg Goldsworthy of the Utilities Commission.
Utilities commission Executive Director Ron Vaden said the city continued with the program so as to support renewable energy.
"Our program, in its own way, helps to promote the industry and build the market for it, so that hopefully it continues to flourish," Vaden said.
An entire solar-energy system, which uses cells called photovoltaics, can cost $13,000 to $19,000. Through its program, New Smyrna pays for a third of the costs; another third is covered through a state grant, and the homeowner pays the remaining third.
On the rooftop of each home, the photovoltaics, or solar cells, are in rows. When the sun hits the cells, it triggers a reaction that produces an electrical current.
That current is fed into a special converter, situated in the garage or on the side of the house, which transforms the power into standard electricity used in homes.
With constant sun, electricity flows into the home, and there is no need for help from electrical power lines.
If the system produces more power than the homeowner uses, that electricity is then sent out on the power lines to the city system, and the homeowner gets a credit for each kilowatt -- at the same price that the utility sells electricity.
On stormy days and nights, or whenever the solar cells aren't producing the needed amount of power, the house receives electricity from the utility lines.
Lee Bidgood, an environmentalist who got the city's first solar-energy system, has been happy with it. On average, the photovoltaics supply about a third of his power needs, and he pays about $60 a month for electricity.
During his best month, this May, he bought only $14 worth of electricity.
Like some others willing to make the investment in a solar-energy system, Bidgood first became interested because solar power doesn't produce the greenhouse gases linked to global warming. He sees the cost savings as a bonus.
Palazzotto built his 2,960-square-foot beachside duplex with solar energy in mind, visiting the solar-energy center in Cocoa for tips.
The major investment was the photovoltaic system, which included 28 cells built like an extra layer of shingles onto his white, metal roof. The house was also built with 6-foot overhangs, instead of the typical 2-foot overhangs, to keep the sun from heating the house.
His windows are double-glazed, the walls have extra insulation, and the air conditioner can run on less power when less cooling is needed. The air-conditioning ducts were built inside the home rather than in the attic, where they tend to get hot.
Palazzotto's miserly ways include simple fixes, too.
The house is painted white with yellow trim because lighter colors don't absorb heat. He uses fluorescent and high-pressure sodium lights instead of incandescent bulbs, and many lights have motion sensors. Many of his floors have Mexican tile, which can be much cooler than other flooring.
"A lot of these things you can get at a Home Depot, and to me, it's all just common sense," he said. "I'm very happy not having to spend $1,200 a year on electricity."
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(c) 2002. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News