On a sunny day Bryan Walsh’s house actually produces more electricity than it uses. Walsh built the solar-powered house on the outskirts of Blacksburg to show customers what his company, Moonlight Solar, can do. It’s also his home.
Customers “see that I live what I do,” said Walsh, a solar energy buff since childhood. He designed the house to be as efficient as possible, insulating heavily and using high-efficiency appliances and lights. Six large solar panels line his spacious deck, converting sunlight to electricity and pumping it into the house. There it will be converted to household current and will run the refrigerator, the lights, the television and whatever else is plugged in. Any electricity Walsh, his wife and two children, his mother and their huge iguana, Mr. Greenjeans, don’t use flows back into the power grid. Once in the grid, it goes wherever it’s needed – perhaps the refrigerator of one of his Mount Tabor Road-area neighbors. Walsh gets a credit from the electric company when he adds power to the grid. Then, when it’s dark or cloudy, that credit applies to the electricity he takes from the grid. “Our eventual goal here is not to need the grid whatsoever.” He hasn’t quite done away with his electric bill yet, but some of his customers have. These customers aren’t hooked up to the grid at all. Walsh designs and installs a system that will collect energy while the sun is out and run off batteries at night. Some of these customers live in remote areas, deep in the mountains or on small islands, where there is no electric service. Others have chosen to be independent of the grid. For Patty Hieser, a Moonlight solar customer in Check, it was a little bit of both. She didn’t have power lines and poles running to her house and decided she didn’t want them. She had Walsh design a three-panel system that would power her lights, blender, fan and portable stereo. “For the most part, I have plenty of power,” said Hieser, who has had her solar system for three years. Sometimes when the weather is cloudy, she conserves her solar power by using candles instead of electric lights. Her only problems, she said, have been caused by accidentally leaving lights on. A small system with three or four panels would cost a few thousand dollars, Walsh said. A larger system that could power a whole house might cost 10 times as much. The sticker shock, he said, makes people think about what they really need. By making changes, such as purchasing a more efficient washing machine, the customer can get by with a smaller system. Walsh’s longtime interest in solar power, coupled with his training as an electrician, led him to start Moonlight Solar eight years ago. He also owns Current Electric, a local company that provides more conventional electrical services. Moonlight Solar now accounts for about half of his jobs, when it once did only a handful a year, he said. “In the last eight years, business has boomed,” Walsh said. He has installed hundreds of systems from Maryland to Georgia and on Atlantic islands, such as Cedar Island off the Eastern Shore and Bermuda. Even so, he said the solar business is still subsidized by conventional electric work. Solar Tech and Energy Experience, two Roanoke-based solar contractors, both said they’ve seen increased interest this year, possibly because of rising energy rates. Whenever fossil fuel prices go up, solar energy will begin to look more attractive, said George Hagerman, a faculty research associate for Virginia Tech’s Center for Energy and the Global Environment at the Alexandria Research Institute. He said the research and development into solar energy begun in the 1970s has begun to yield significant results. “I think photovoltaic [solar energy] will follow wind energy as the next renewable energy to make a dent” in the fossil fuel market, Hagerman said. “This is definitely here to stay.” Nationally, the solar electricity industry is not exactly booming, but has about doubled since 1983. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, it’s the export market that has exploded, growing by almost 800 percent in that time. The Department of Energy predicts that the domestic market will continue to expand but will contribute only a tiny percentage of the nation’s energy needs. It also predicts that costs will come down, but will remain too expensive for customers who have access to the grid. But, Walsh said he thinks solar energy will become a more financially attractive alternative when Virginia deregulates the electric industry. Today it takes solar-powered systems decades to pay for themselves, he said, but after deregulation, alternative energy will become more valuable and a solar system will have a 10-year payoff. “Every month thereafter,” he said, “you’re making money.”