Solar Energy Pioneers
Written by Jamie Miles | Photographed by Dennis McDaniel
A local family invests in the future by harnessing the sun's power.
In Ashley and Weyman Hunt's bustling kitchen, a bulletin board displays a patchwork of their young sons' tempera paintings and a Georgia Power bill heralding a $7 credit. This is Weyman's prize, appropriately featured among his children's masterpieces. The reason for this unheard-of power bill lies in a clearing just outside the family room window: a series of photovoltaic panels converting sunlight to electricity.
The Hunts are local pioneers on the frontier of renewable energy. Utilizing two proven ways to harness the sun's power, they produce thermal solar-heated water and photovoltaic energy. While the terms may sound high tech, they translate into hot baths for three busy boys, unlimited loads of muddy socks made clean, and enough electricity to power a home full of 21st century gadgets and toys. Judging by this traditional family's lifestyle, green energy may soon become mainstream.
When Ashley and Weyman built their spacious family home on the edge of Madison's historic district three years ago, they used the most energy-efficient materials available, installing foam insulation and high-efficiency windows and doors. Even with the constant activity behind their many picture windows, their highest power bill in the height of summer was $285. “We had such success with the high-efficiency building products; the next logical step was looking into solar energy options,” says Weyman.
After discussing the benefits with Josef Kullmann, president of Madison-based Solar Sun World, the Hunts installed a thermal solar system on their roof. These three solar panels efficiently heat a 120-gallon tank, providing for the family's daily hot water needs. (According to the EPA, hot water accounts for up to a third of a household's energy needs.) As sunshine warms the roof, it also heats an antifreeze-like fluid that flows through coils in the panels. This heated liquid runs down to the Hunts' basement to heat their water tank. On sunny days, the tank temperature can rise well above the preset level of 120 degrees. If a few days of cloud cover cause the water temperature to drop, a tankless water heater beside it bumps the temperature up to where it needs to be. But Weyman is quick to note that on most days, sun power alone keeps plenty of hot water flowing out of their showerheads and kitchen faucets.
After discovering federal and state tax incentives, Weyman decided to add an electricity-generating photovoltaic system to their property. Solar Sun World installed the series of panels in the Hunts' backyard. These high-tech power producers bask in the sun as comfortably as any reptiles lining the banks of the Amazon. When exposed to sunlight, the panels' semiconductor cells generate an electric current.
As approved producers in Georgia Power's Green Energy Program, electricity generated at the Hunts' house travels back to the main grid. Georgia Power then sells the Hunts' electricity to customers who have chosen the renewable energy option. On the underside of the panels, myriad meters and gauges constantly flash productivity data. By checking the outgoing meter, Weyman can keep track of all the electricity his sun-loving panels have produced and sent to the grid. The incoming meter registers the number of kilowatt-hours their household has used.
It pays to have your own backyard power plant. Just ask Weyman. Georgia Power pays him 17 cents per kilowatt-hour for the green energy while charging him about 11 cents per kilowatt-hour for the electricity his family uses. It's no wonder they end up with $20 power bills.
Looking out at the wooden platform of shiny panels, Weyman surmises, “Some people might not like the way they look, but to me they're kind of cool.” Then he adds with a laugh, “And heck, they make me money.”
The panels come with a 30-year warranty, which Weyman doesn't foresee using; though during last January's winter storm, his heart stopped after looking outside to see his grade school boys jumping on the snow-covered panels.
To continue reading about local solar energy pioneers, pick up the latest issue of Lake Oconee Living magazine. It's hot off the press! You can find it on newsstands at the Morgan County Citizen office, Ingles, Madison Drug Store, Olde South Wine and Spirits, and Thrifty Mac.
Printed in the March 31, 2011 edition