Friday, December 31, 2010

Sebring Florida Couple Goes Solar

SEBRING - Walking into the Million's pleasant Sebring home all decorated for Christmas, you would never know that it's almost entirely powered by the sun.

Jerry Million, 87, and his wife Elli, 83, showed off their most recent electric bill: $13.

"Just a little bit of a change," joked Jerry, who admitted a typical bill in the past ranged from $150-$200 a month.

The Millions have two hot water heating panels and 22 photovoltaic solar panels on the backside of their roof with plans to install 12 more. It's hard to get a look at them without climbing up on the roof or backing far enough away from the house to see the sloping shingles with discreet, black rectangles attached.

How do solar panels work?

The water heating panels are designed to do just that - heat water for the home. They do not produce electricity. The Millions installed their two hot water panels 15 years ago. "They won the contest 15 years ago for being the most efficient," said Jerry. "I paid an outrageous price for them - $650," he said, keeping the jokes going. "It was such a good deal, I think. They pay for themselves every three years."

The Millions were very impressed with the results from the hot water panels, saying that they never ran out of hot water once and that the temperature of the water was "boiling hot."

Jerry decided he wanted to go ahead and start installing photovoltaic panels, which are able to convert the sun's rays into electricity that can be used to power the rest of the home. They had 22 panels installed in June 2009 by a local company known as One Solar.

Photovoltaic solar panels make use of clean, renewable energy from the sun and are connected into the home's electricity meter. When the panels make electricity, it causes the meter to run backwards and when the household uses electricity, the meter runs forward. At the end of the month, the electric company (in the Million's case Progress Energy) sends them a bill for the difference. If the home produces more energy than the household uses, the electric company actually purchases that electricity from the homeowner.

The Millions haven't made any money off their panels yet, but they are expecting to once they get the next 12 panels installed. "General Electric is coming out with new panels with a substantial operating efficiency. Much better than what we have now," said Jerry, excited to take advantage of the newest technology.

He figures that if he can get a $13 electric bill with 22 older model panels, the 12 new upgraded panels should make a big difference. "Right now we've got a big irrigation system because of the two vineyards on the property," he added, speaking of his 1.5 acres of muscadine grape vines. "You can't even tell that we're using big electrical pumps."

Thinking ahead

But is the new installation isn't really about making money from the electric company. Jerry and Elli have their eyes on the future. "My thinking was, quite honestly, we're getting to run out of oil and it won't be too many years and then what the heck is mankind going to do?" said Jerry.

A big Warren Buffett fan and stock trader himself, Jerry quoted the legendary investor. "Warren Buffett said one thing: in 20 years the cars coming off the line will be predominantly electric." Jerry plans to buy an electric car and fuel it from his roof.

Which car is he planning to buy? "He's studying that," said Elli.

"I probably at this particular moment, and excuse me for saying it, but the Chinese are out in front," Jerry admitted. "The Chinese are going to have one according to Buffett that goes 250 miles with no recharge. That gets me over to the V.A. hospital in Bay Pines and gets me back."

How much did it cost?

The hot water panels cost the Millions $650 fifteen years ago, but the photovoltaics were another story. They had to come up with $37,000 for installation of the 22 panels up front, but have since received a federal rebate for $11,000. The state of Florida owes them another $20,000 rebate, which the Millions have yet to see. If the state comes through, that would put the Millions' total cost of ownership at $6,000, which means the panels would pay for themselves in two and a half to three years.

The Millions are not pleased about the delay in the rebate payment, but Jerry feels worse for those who had to borrow money in order to go solar. "A lot of people took out a loan with the bank. They haven't gotten their money yet, but they've gotten (to pay) interest on it!"

Retired and relaxing

A retired photographer with the Aviation Section of the U.S. Signal Corps, the direct ancestor of the U.S. Air Force which was in place from 1914 to 1918, Jerry pursued a career in photography and journalism for most of his life. The Miami native met his wife Elli at age 78 through an online computer dating ad.

"He's the luckiest man in the world!" Elli chimed in.

Elli is currently the second vice president of the Highlands County Democratic Women's Club and has a background in politics and government. In fact, she was responsible for pioneering volunteerism in the Dade County school system back when volunteers were not allowed in public schools. Her program, which was originally started to help migrant children who were falling through the cracks, was later picked up by the Dade County School Board.

"I'm in the first history book of 'Women Who Make a Difference' in Dade County," Elli admitted.

For now, the couple enjoys making wine and using the electricity that they generate without so much as lifting a finger.

"It makes sense. If that sun is up there and I can go ahead and operate this whole property, everything about it, with the energy that falls on those panels, why not take full advantage of it?" said Jerry.

He predicted that the rest of the world will eventually catch up to them, especially here in Florida where there is plenty of sun 360 days of the year to run a home with rooftop panels.

"We've got so much solar," admitted Elli. "Why not use it?"


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