Sun Power

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    CHESTER-Chester has gone solar. This past December, a solar energy company installed eight collector panels at the Chester Heights Apartments, defying the conventional wisdom that New York doesn't have enough sunshine to make this alternative form of energy practical. "Contrary to popular belief, there is plenty of sun in New York," said Dr. Gay Canough, the president of the company that installed the panels. "Chester Heights gets about 75 percent of the amount of sun that San Diego gets." Her company, Extraterrestrial Materials (ETM) Solar Works of Endicott, installed the panels, storage tanks, a heat exchanger, pumps, and copper pipes. The system will heat about 50 percent of the water at the apartment complex in the spring, summer and fall, she said. It will even heat water in winter. Now in its 17th year, EMT has outfitted buildings ranging in size from a big library to houses. The company also installs wind generators. At Chester Heights, which includes four residences, EMT put solar collectors in the roof of the south-facing center building. The storage tanks in the basement at Chester Heights hold 480 gallons. "We can supply more hot water to the apartments by adding more collectors and storage tanks," Canough said. According to the engineer's report, the roof has a design capable of bearing the weight of the fluid-filled collectors, said Village of Chester Building Inspector Marion Golankie. EMT installed rubber seals to guard against leaks at the point of attachment, he said. The most effective solar system requires heating fluid in collectors, according to EMT's Web site. To prevent freezing at night, the fluid is usually a mixture of water and non-toxic antifreeze. A heat exchanger takes the heat collected in the fluid and transfers it to the hot water tank. When the collectors are hotter than the tank, a controller tells the pumps when to run, according to ETM. Collectors like those at Chester Heights are called Heliodyne Gobi collectors, which, as ETM explains, "bear the name of one of the world's harshest deserts." The company claims that a solar hot water heater will keep working for over 20 years. Solar heat from the collectors can raise water temperature in the storage tanks to 120 degrees F. The storage tanks feed the gas-fired hot water tank, which in turn feeds hot water to the apartments. The gas will stay off as long as the solar tanks are hot, but will turn back on when there is no sun. Warwick house feels the heat Another nearby solar-powered building is the Warwick home of Dr. William J. Makofske, a professor of physics and environmental science at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He talked about alternative energy and home design last weekend at Warwick's Albert Wisner Library. He designed his own two-story ranch house, built five years ago, by incorporating simple, cost-effective solar systems. The house is "superinsulated" with a berm of earth. It has an air-to-air heat exchanger, a solar hot water heater, passive solar heating on the house's south side, a solar greenhouse, and a solar electric system. Makofske said that, once his system was built, his electric meter immediately began running backward: that is, his system was generating more energy than it was taking in. But he doesn't expect to get rebates any time soon. He said he'd be happy for now if confusion about meter readings would cease. "The library was kind of surprised by the number of people interested in this, but I guess it may be something due to the fact that we had 51-dollar-a-barrel oil this week," Makofske said. "We're at a turning point in terms of energy prices around the world. It all has to do with the fact that we have a finite supply of oil and we have about a 40-year supply of oil at a constant rate." The biggest concern right now is building infrastructures suitable for solar energy, he said. That takes time. "We should have started 30 years ago," said Makofske. "It's probably not too late. But if those prices shoot up there quickly and we have a depression, people aren't going to have the money to invest in changing infrastructure." People who are building houses now can take steps in anticipation of someday having a solar-equipped home. For example, they can build facing south on a slope. They can put bedrooms in the back of the house and more frequently used rooms on the south side. He recommends the conservative use of windows because they help heat escape. The rule of thumb is to devote to windows 8 to 10 percent of square footage on the south side. To keep south-facing windows from bringing too much heat into houses in summer, a good amount of overhang is needed — about two feet. He said he doesn't have air conditioning in his house, and it hasn't been a problem. "The Greeks and Romans knew how to do this," he said. "This is nothing new. It's just simple design. But we seem to have forgotten it over time." Efficient lighting is important too, he said. And so is gardening. "Our food system runs on oil," he said. "For each calorie of food you eat, there's 10 calories of oil that has gone into getting that food onto your plate." Using solar energy for municipal projects can be expensive, Makofske said. Credits and rebates are available, but the process can be complicated. But a solar unit for a building such as a library could pay for itself in 10 to 12 years, he said. In 2003, ETM installed a 22-panel system at the Sidney Memorial Public Library, in Sidney. The project was made possible with a grant from the state Energy Research and Development Authority. The library uses sun power to run lights, computers and air conditioning, providing up to 10 percent of the building's electrical needs. New York State has incentives for installing renewable energy sources, including subsidies and tax credits. "The combination when you add them up together is about a 65 percent subsidy of the price of an installed system," Makofske said. That's the subsidy he took for his own home. The system cost $23,000, and with the subsidy, he paid about $8,000. He said he is supplying 100 percent of his electricity with the system. Earlier this month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California proposed a 10-year plan that would give incentives to home and business owners for switching to solar energy. The plan is actually a compromise from an even more ambitious plan of last year that called for half of all new homes and businesses to eventually become solar powered. "It's clearly the most ambitious solar incentive ever proposed in the United States," David Hochschild, the director of the non-profit group Vote Solar, told the San Diego Union Tribune.