Monday, December 4, 2017

St. Pete Solar Tour Shines Light on Sun-Powered Living: Learn How To Host a Tour In Your Area!

Tour participants at St. Pete Eco-Village included Gina Driscoll, 5th from the left, who this month replaces Karl Nurse on St. Petersburg City Council. All photos by Bryan Blackford for St. Pete Eco-Village 
Nearly 50 participants got an inside look at how local homeowners and businesses are using solar energy and energy efficiency to save money and help tackle climate change during the November 11 2nd Annual 100% St. Pete Solar Tour.

Co-hosted by Suncoast Sierra Club, St. Pete EcoVillage and the League of Women Voters of St. Petersburg, the event featured a wide variety of Florida-style sustainable living and working with five homes and two commercial applications.

“Our goal is to present an interactive and engaging experience that will inspire people to take action,” said Chris Kenrick, Co-Director of St. Pete EcoVillage, a non-profit sustainability education center and community garden located in an economically depressed area in the heart of St. Petersburg’s urban corridor. “Just looking at solar panels on people’s houses would be boring. So we made this more of a storytelling tour that demonstrated very different people and lifestyles.”

For example, the homes ranged in size and age from a 750-square-foot newly built home designed
Planet Fitness fitness center with solar panels on canopy shading its entrance.
for sustainability to a two-story, 1,800-square-foot house nearly a century old. The commercial examples included the 20,000-square-foot Planet Fitness renovated strip center building and a solar-covered carport on the campus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

At each location, tour participants got to hear from the homeowners and businesspeople firsthand and ask questions about costs, return-on-investment (ROI), energy savings and challenges.

Here’s a sampling from the tour :
Early adopter advantages
Commercial pilot Mark Ertel installed his first 20 solar panels on the roof of his 1,600-square-foot stucco home when the local utility (now Duke Energy) was still offering a rebate. With the rebate and federal solar tax credit, Ertel’s out-of-pocket cost was only $2,000. “It was a no-brainer. Since I’m saving roughly $1,000 a year on electricity bills, it was paid back in about 2 and a half years. During the day my meter runs backwards, which means I’m feeding electricity into the grid.”
Paul Ertel lives a clean energy life, free of coal, natural gas, and oil. 

In addition, Ertel took several energy-saving steps, including installing Low-E windows, LED light bulbs and skylights. He also replaced his pool pump with a variable speed pump, which he said is a “huge energy-saver … it will run a full day for about the same amount of energy that powered one hour with the old pump.”

In 2016 Ertel added a Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (EV) to the mix, plus six solar panels to roof of his garage. Even with charging his EV for six months, he still got a $40 credit for the year from Duke Energy.

Born in Germany, Ertel said he grew up being much more energy conscious than most Americans. “To me, energy’s money. In Germany we grew up saving energy …turning off lights when we weren’t using them. My college already had solar panels 23 years ago,” he said. Although he’s not a member of the Sierra Club, he said he’s definitely “environmentally conscious.”

A commercial pilot, he also thrives on the research and technology involved in energy. “It was like a project to see if I could do it,” he said, adding that buyers need to do their own research before purchasing solar.

Saving at home and business
When former St. Petersburg City Councilman Karl Nurse and his wife bought their 1926 home in Old Southeast St. Petersburg 25 years ago they “started at the beginning” by adding attic insulation. Since then they’ve added Low-E film to their 25 windows, a natural gas tankless water heater, more energy efficient lightbulbs and a programmable smart thermostat. The thermostat, which enables him to save about 15% on power, “has a pretty tremendous payback,” said Nurse, who now serves on Suncoast Sierra’s executive committee (ExCom).

About five years ago, Nurse installed solar panels on the back portion of his roof, preserving the aesthetics of the home’s distinct Florida Craftsman style on the front. Combined with their energy-saving measures, the solar reduces his family’s electricity bill by about 70%, he said.

Karl Nurse shows how to bring clean energy to an old house. 
Based on the positive experience at home, Nurse recently installed solar panels on the roof of a new 3,000-square-foot building for his growing manufacturing business, Bay Tech Label, also based in St. Petersburg. He said he saved about 30 percent on the solar installation costs by designing the building and roof for solar from the beginning. He estimates the solar will have a six-year payback in energy cost savings.

Creating a sustainable family compound
Architect Tim Rhode is transforming a small corner of St. Petersburg into a self-sustaining family compound shared by he and his wife, two daughters and their children. The oasis within the city includes three homes, a workshop, small organic farm and many energy- and water-saving features. His goal is to ultimately generate enough power, water and food to sustain the 11 people living there.

“We’re really living in a world that can’t sustain our typical lifestyle,” said Rhode. “So I’m trying to do what I can to minimize my family’s impact on the environment.”

One of his biggest energy-saving moves was to downsize from a 3,600-square-foot home in old Northeast to the 750-square-foot house he built behind his daughter’s home. “To convince my wife we could live in such a small space, I went through and labeled the spaces in our old home that we actually used. Then I showed her how we could provide for all those activities in this design,” said Rhode.

He designed the home for passive cooling and heating so it uses no additional heat or air conditioning. The solar panels on the roof generate enough electricity for the home – with some to spare and send over to his daughter’s home. The home also includes a 12,000-gallon cistern that collects rainwater for use in the farm.

Valuable takeaways for participants
Throughout the three-hour tour, participants peppered the homeowners and tour hosts with questions touching on their biggest concerns about going solar. Some of the key points and lessons included:
  •           No maintenance required: Homeowners reported that their solar installations continued functioning without problems or any special maintenance. At most, they said they rinsed off the panels about once a year.
  •           Zero damage from hurricanes: Despite some high winds brought by Hurricane Irma, hosts said their panels sustained no damage. They explained that in Florida, solar panels are required to stand up to hurricane-force winds.
  •          Simple energy efficiency measures deliver high return: Besides solar, each home and business owner stressed that basic energy-saving steps played a major role in their strategies to cut electricity consumption and costs. Don’t underestimate the value of switching to LED lightbulbs, using Low-E windows or film and other actions.
  •           Do your research and ask for help: Like any home or business improvement, owners need to double-check the claims made by solar companies. Many Florida cities now have solar co-ops set up by Solar United Neighbors of Florida, an initiative led by the League of Women Voters. The co-ops offer both education and savings for homeowners interested in going solar.
Wish you were there? Click here to get a brief video sample of the St. Pete Solar Tour. (Video produced by Bryan Blackford of St. Pete EcoVillage.) 

Want to host a solar tour in your area? Here’s how:

A solar tour can be a great way for local Sierra groups to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency and increase awareness in your area. This can be an especially effective tactic for promoting your group’s Ready for 100 campaign.

If your group is interested in organizing a tour, here are some tips based on the St. Pete Solar Tour:

·         Recruit coalition partners to help organize the event and attract participation. For example, the Suncoast Sierra Club, partnered with St. Pete EcoVillage and the League of Women Voters of St. Petersburg to plan and stage their 2016 and 2017 solar tours.
·         Identify tour sites. Brainstorm ideas with your partners about potential sites, preferably representing a selection residential, business and school/government/nonprofit installations that would make compelling examples of solar and energy efficiency at work. Aim for a variety, from small to large and different situations, with interesting stories to tell.
·         Plan logistics. The locations need to be within a small enough geographic area to keep the tour within 3 hours. For example, the St. Pete tour featured 7 sites and ran like clockwork, running from about 9 am to Noon on a Saturday. Plan to use a bus with capacity for about 50 participants and map the stops to make an efficient route. Allow at least 15 minutes at each stop. Over-flow participants can use their own vehicle, but only if the bus is full, to minimize emissions.
·         Base the budget to break even. This shouldn’t be a fundraiser. For example, the St. Pete tour cost $10, with an option to pay $5 more to enjoy a lovely organic garden lunch after the tour at the St. Pete EcoVillage. With 50 participants, the event netted $100 after expenses, according to EcoVillage Co-Director Chris Kenrick, which included a rented school after expenses bus and driver.
·         Promote the event widely. Engage media to list the tour in their event directories. Line up newspaper, blogosphere and broadcast reporters in advance to attend and cover the tour – emphasize the event’s great visuals and opportunities to interview home and business owners. Promote the event via email, website and social media for each coalition partner.

These are just the basics for your group’s leaders to consider. If you want to move forward, reach out to your local Ready for 100 team. There’s probably a team already active in your area. 

For more info on how to organize a solar tour in 2018, and how to connect with your local Ready for 100 campaign, contact Sierra Club FL Ready for 100 Senior Organizing Representative Phil Compton at 727-824-8813, ext. 303 / If you’re in South Florida, contact Ready for 100 Organizing Representative Emily Gorman at our Miami office, 305-567-0022 /

by Liz Taylor for Sierra Club Florida's Ready for 100% Campaign
Phil Compton, Senior Organizing Representative
727-824-8813, ext. 303