Man's energy-saving home leads to $0 electric bill

Monday, October 1, 2007
This set of solar panels shown Feb. 28 help homeowner Jeffrey Ward of Farmington, Mo., generate his own power. Ward says the money he's saved from using them will pay off the panels in five to seven years. (RENEE JEAN ~ Park Hills Daily Journal)

FARMINGTON, Mo. -- Many people might like to have an electric bill that reads zero on the line where electric use is listed.

Jeffrey Ward actually does.

The Farmington resident has taken total control of his energy bill in a big way with the installation of three solar panels in the backyard. He has achieved not just zero electric use, but he actually generates more power than he needs and feeds it back to the city, which purchases it from him at cost.

Ward started his crusade against rising energy costs with the usual steps energy experts advise. He put more insulation in his attic and walls. He insulated his pipes and water heater.

He switched all his light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs and started drying his clothes on a line instead of the dryer. He has wood heat, which keeps the air very dry, so the extra humidity from drying his clothes inside during winter doesn't cause mildew.

Jeffrey Ward checked the electric meter Feb. 28 at his Farmington, Mo., home. The meter runs backward on sunny days as his solar panels generate extra power. The city buys the additional electricity back from him at wholesale cost. (RENEE JEAN ~ Park Hills Daily Journal)

He also put appliances like his television set on a surge bar so they could be turned off when not in use.

He explained such devices draw power, even when off, to retain programmed settings and time displays that aren't truly essential. Turning off the power to those optional features can save as much as 5 percent on power usage, according to many energy experts.

He's re-engineered his water pipes, running them through his wood stove to preheat water in winter before filling the water heater.

"The water is actually hotter going into the heater than it is going out," he said.

He also placed a Plexiglas tank painted black on the south side of his house to preheat water in summer.

Finally, he ran out of little things he could do. It was time to try something bigger. He had read about installing solar panels in many of the energy magazines he subscribes to. That, he decided, should be the next project

Since 2003, Missouri laws allow homeowners to connect power generating devices into the electric system and get credit for the power. This requires a permit from the city and a net-metering contract.

The solar panels Ward purchased cost $11,000 -- but the actual cost was less than that. He got tax credits from the state and federal government to offset about $2,000 of his purchase.

Six kilowatts a day

At a rate of zero energy use, it won't take long to recoup the remaining cost. "If you save $100 a month, you'll be done paying for the panels in seven years, and all the rest is free," he said.

Ward uses about six kilowatts a day and had been making between nine and 13 kilowatts with his solar panels since March. The number will go up as days get longer and down as they get shorter.

That doesn't quite cover the flat $11.60 customer charge for electric service -- but it makes Ward feel pretty good that his bill reads zero on the line for electric usage.

In some states, he would get paid market value for any extra power he feeds into the system -- but in Missouri the most he can get is wholesale cost.

He hopes that will one day change. Last year a bill called the Easy Connect Act was sponsored in the legislature and 52 lawmakers backed the bill. Information about the bill is available at morenergy.com.

"A monkey could do this," he said, when it was suggested his system might be above the ability of the average person. "We all have to take some responsibility and do our part."

It is not just environmental concerns that have prompted Ward's efforts. He wants to be as independent and self-sufficient as possible.

"You can pay off your house and your car, but when could you ever pay off your electric bill?" he asked. "This way you can, and I think that's pretty neat."

He is satisfied with what he has done so far, but Ward is far from finished with energy improvements. He has been looking at solar-powered refrigerators and windmills. He is particularly interested in the latter at this point.

"Cloudy days are likely to be windy ones," he pointed out. "That might even things out and keep my power generation going."

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