The Biscayne Times

Jun 18th
Off The Grid PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jim W. Harper   
September 2010

CovershotSolar power, geo-thermal cooling, rainwater toilets: Dispatches from Miami’s alt-energy frontier.

Hybrid homes may be the next big thing. Like the hybrid car, hybrid homes bring together the best practices in power production while reducing environmental impact.


CovershotHybrid homes may be the next big thing. Like the hybrid car, hybrid homes bring together the best practices in power production while reducing environmental impact. Because such houses can generate some of their own power, the owners get lower bills at the end of the month. Save money and save the planet -- sounds like a no-brainer.

But creating an energy-saving house is not as easy as buying a car, and not many people in South Florida have tried it -- or even considered it. The three local pioneers who share their stories here are not entirely encouraging. “If I like you, I can’t recommend that you do this. It would be sadistic,” says 50-year-old Albert Harum-Alvarez, a software development consultant who lives in Kendall. He built an extremely ambitious, eco-friendly house across the street from his previous house. It was completed in 2008, and now Harum-Alvarez frequently offers tours of the “Green House.”

CoverStory_1The biggest hassle was not the intricate construction but the agonizing process of getting permission to pursue his dream. “It took seven years before we could start to build,” he says. “Miami-Dade is the worst place to build in the world, for permits. Absolutely crazy.” His experience inspired him to enter politics. Last month he lost a bid to become a county commissioner from District 8. “My message is that Miami-Dade County should not be the worst place in the country to permit, but the best.”

With such red-tape obstacles firmly in place, why would anyone attempt to build an outside-the-box, energy-efficient house in Miami? Over time, energy-efficiency measures can pay for themselves in savings, and the broader reasons for a transition to alternative energy are moving from ripe to rotten. President George W. Bush told us years ago that the U.S. was addicted to oil, and this year the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster reminded us that the addiction is ruining lives and life itself.

CoverStory_2In South Florida, the time has come to face our addiction to air-conditioning, or at least to the electricity that runs it. Cooling our homes has been getting more and more difficult and expensive as summertime in South Florida has progressed from brutal to ballistic. The last decade was the world’s warmest on record, and the first six months of 2010 also set a heat record. On top of the heat, we know that Florida’s electricity rates, currently among the lowest in the nation, are guaranteed to rise; that an overburdened, outdated energy grid will usher in an era of brownouts; and that hurricanes are expected to increase in intensity. We know all this, and we can see that it’s a recipe for riots, yet we remain hopeless addicts.

Intent on staying cool in the heat, another man is following his dream to build an energy-efficient home, this time along the Biscayne Corridor. Around the corner from his current residence in Shorecrest, Skip Van Cel is putting the finishing touches on that dream. A visual artist, real estate entrepreneur, and the founder of this publication, Van Cel spent two years doing battle in the City of Miami. Now he’s ready to move in, settle down, and declare victory.

“I’m going to die in this house,” he likes to say.

Although Van Cel hesitates to admit it, the process of creating the house nearly killed his spirit. When he first submitted construction plans to the City of Miami in July 2008, he was “hopeful.” Two years later, he feels “worn out and disgusted.”

Taking a more diplomatic tack, Van Cel rationalizes that “the permit process took longer because of the unique architecture.” But his rain-capturing, inverted “butterfly roof” was not the biggest hurdle. It was his toilets.

Van Cel triumphed by obtaining the first permit in Miami for cistern-based toilets -- ones that would be flushed using rainwater. But Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department said “not so fast.” A series of legal maneuvers left Van Cel with his hands tied, and he felt compelled to raise the white flag. His toilets will use the county’s water after all.

Harum-Alvarez also fought his toughest battles over water. After years of wrangling with state and county agencies, he prevailed. From below his dream house, a deep well provides cool water to run his air conditioning unit very economically. He believes that all buildings in the future will have such geo-thermal systems.

CoverStory_3These two energy-efficient houses, united in spirit, look like opposites. The Harum-Alvarez abode is a comfy, woodsy cottage fit for Goldilocks, whereas the Van Cel residence is a sleek white ship sailing into the blue.

Our third dreamer’s house is less expensive and less complicated, but no less effective. Spike Marro’s goal was to take a pre-existing house just north of Miami Shores and transform it into a lean, green, energy-saving machine primarily through the use of solar energy. He has been very lucky and very successful.

Marro’s luck was in his timing. This year he was one of the few people in Florida to collect the full rebates promised for investing in a solar-energy system before the guillotine dropped. Thousands of other homeowners throughout the state are losing their heads.

A statewide incentive plan begun in 2006, the Solar Energy Systems Incentives Program, offered large rebates for the installation of new solar-energy systems on homes and businesses, but nearly 16,000 eligible people have received nothing since the program’s funds dried up last year. These desperate Floridians are now stuck on a waiting list that may never award its promised $53 million in rebates. For an individual homeowner, the loss could equal upward of $20,000.

Miami’s Marro had been on the waiting list, but he was near the top and received his full rebate of $19,500.

Van Cel is not on the list because he has yet to install his planned solar-panel system, and now must decide if it is worth it. Harum-Alvarez is waiting for the price of solar panels to drop before expanding wholeheartedly. His home has one panel that runs the pool pump and a passive hot water system that collects the sun’s heat directly.

The price of photovoltaic solar panels is not expected to drop appreciably because competition with China has pushed down the cost “as low as it can really get,” according to Kevin Kohler of Electron Solar Energy in Miami. But he predicts the rising cost of electricity will make solar power a viable choice for most homeowners by 2015. Kohler claims that a home’s solar-panel system can pay for itself within six years, though such calculations are wobbling as a result of the state’s defunct rebate program.

That program has become ammunition in the race for governor, with independent candidate Bud Chiles making it a centerpiece of his campaign. It also threatens to strangle Florida’s fledgling alternative energy sector, which relied on the rebates to entice new customers.

The loss of rebates may affect fewer homeowners along the Biscayne Corridor than elsewhere. For some reason, houses with solar energy systems are very hard to find in our neighborhoods. “It’s really strange,” says Ed Strobel, president of Sunshine Solar in Fort Lauderdale and vice president of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy. When searching for homes with solar-panel projects, he sees mostly empty space from the Broward County line south to Miami’s Coconut Grove. It appears that virtually all homeowner solar projects in Miami-Dade County are located south of downtown Miami, leaning toward wealthier areas in Kendall and Pinecrest.

Strobel also notes the huge gap between Miami’s history as a national leader in solar power and its current lack of alternative-energy production. Before World War II, approximately half of Miami’s homes used solar-thermal systems for hot water, Strobel asserts. One system consisted of copper tanks mounted on roofs, where the sun would heat the water they held. Evidence from this era can be seen in Miami homes with rooftop cupolas where the tanks were once housed. More familiar systems using black tubing were also abundant.

In A Golden Thread: 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology, authors Ken Butti and Ken Perlin claim that Florida’s thriving solar-heating industry was shut down first by the wartime demand for copper and later by Florida Power & Light’s successful efforts to have customers switch to electric water heaters, which the company sold cheaply.

History also shows that people could live in Florida without air-conditioning, and both of the multi-story Van Cel and Harum-Alvarez houses take advantage of shady overhangs and summertime breezes from the east. Harum-Alvarez says that his house “incorporates a lot of lessons from Florida Cracker design,” referring to the way pioneer houses were built.

Instead of throwing out the AC unit, these dreamers are trying to minimize its use with good design in combination with 21st century, alternative technology. Ironically, the Sunshine State doesn’t seem to get it.

The alternative-energy sector is taking off in other states while suffocating in Florida. “If I were in a different state, I’d be fine, but I’m just about done for,” says Paul Farren, who used his life savings in 2006 to open The Energy Store, a renewable and alternative-energy demonstration center in Hollywood. He says the industry’s growth in California is based on a state mandate to dramatically increase the use of renewable energy, and he blames Florida’s Republican-led legislature for killing our solar incentive program.

“The picture has gotten extremely ugly as far as return on investment,” he says of Florida’s inability to pay its rebates. “People are being screwed.”

CoverStory_4Florida’s rebate program was not funded by the state legislature in 2009 and 2010, although it managed to pay some people on its waiting list (like Marro) with funds from the 2009 federal stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Nationally, new solar-energy systems are eligible for a tax credit of 30 percent. For a $40,000 system, that would amount to $12,000. Combined with the state rebate, a $40,000 system could have been reduced to a net cost of $8000. Without the state rebate, the net cost would rise to $28,000.

The high up-front cost to produce solar electricity discourages most people from considering it, but smaller, less costly options are available. A pool can be heated without any of the pricey, blue-and-silver photovoltaic (PV) panels that people associate with solar energy. Instead, using passive solar technology, the pool’s water is pumped through a series of black tubes, where it collects the sun’s heat directly.

CoverStory_5Passive solar also works for household hot water, and has done so for many decades. The federal 30 percent tax credit applies, although the state’s previous rebate of up to $500 for is gone. An average solar thermal system costs between $3000 and $4000, according to Kohler from Electron Solar Energy.

These smaller projects were not enough to satisfy Spike Marro, a 44-year-old music executive who bought his home in 2003 and shares it with Biscayne Times contributor Cathi Marro. The modest house near Barry University in unincorporated Miami-Dade County has a photovoltaic system strong enough to power everything except the AC, and it includes a bank of batteries that function as a generator during power outages.

CoverStory_6Marro estimates his high-end, $60,000 system ultimately cost him $17,800 out of pocket. He expects it to pay for itself within ten years. The 5000-watt system has lowered his monthly electric bill by 60 to 80 percent, or about $150 per month. Marro monitors and charts everything on his computer, and has become a true energy geek. (Going off the electric grid completely, while possible, is too complicated and expensive to be considered by average homeowners. Kohler knows of one woman in Pinecrest who did it, and some homes on isolated islands in the Florida Keys are self-sufficient.)

As to why more of his neighbors have not taken the leap into solar, Marro speculates that “people just don’t know about it.” He educated himself by attending a National Solar Day event in Orlando, where he toured houses with solar systems. “It really got me motivated,” he recalls.

CoverStory_7Marro also spent years on renovations that include insulating, hurricane-proof windows, and a metal roof that turned out to be the perfect fit for a special type of solar panel. Instead of boxy rectangles, his 36 PV panels are long, thin strips that adhere directly to the metal roof. His house was the second in Florida to install them. From his experience, Marro says that finding a competent installer is “one of the main stumbling blocks.” He relied upon the connections of Paul Farren from The Energy Store.

Both Marro’s rooftop and Harum-Alvarez’s house have generated buzz, and Van Cel’s house can’t be far behind.

Instead of a green house, Van Cel calls his creation a “smart house.” He expects its completion by the end of this month. Its most intriguing feature is the butterfly roof, which forms an upright “V” instead of the traditional A-frame. Rainwater runs towards the roof’s center and collects into a flume that scuttles it over the side of the house as a waterfall.

CoverStory_8The sound from inside is mesmerizing. “Instead of a fireplace, we have a waterfall,” says Van Cel, who enthuses about the house as if it were magical. “It doesn’t resist the weather; it embraces it.”

Rainwater from the roof and waterfall collects into two cisterns and will be used for a pond and for irrigation (but not for the toilets). Van Cel intends to install a 6000-watt solar-panel system and a tankless water heater that he estimates will keep his electric bill under $50 in August, but the actual savings remain to be seen.

Both Van Cel and Harum-Alvarez emphasize the importance of insulation. Their walls are constructed of Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF), which start out as Styrofoam building blocks. The blocks are filled with rebar and concrete, and the resulting walls are very sturdy (hurricane proof) and cooling (lower energy bills). “It’s dead quiet because of all the insulation,” says Van Cel, who compares it to the silence inside to a home covered in snow. They work so well that Van Cel says, “It’s ridiculous not to use them in Miami.”

CoverStory_9Harum-Alvarez adds that the insurance savings, based on the super-strong ICF walls, are even greater than the energy savings from insulation.

The three efficient houses discussed here also share a secret that early Florida homebuilders knew instinctively. The houses are oriented to maximize natural summertime breezes from the southeast. This orientation also minimizes the western wall that gets hit with afternoon rays, which are the most intense. The two newly constructed houses also feature large porches or outdoor sitting areas and extensive rooftop overhangs for shade. All three homes also have southern-facing roofs, preferred for solar panels in Northern America.

As my two-bedroom house in North Miami also has a south-facing roof, I got excited and collected quotes for a photovoltaic system from both Paul Farren of The Energy Store in Hollywood, essentially a one-man operation, and Kevin Kohler from Electron Solar Energy, the market leader in Miami. Here is what I learned:

The first point to absorb is that a typical rooftop photovoltaic system does not generate enough electricity to run everything in a household, and alone it will not get you off the grid. Electricity from solar energy is a supplement.

The second, obvious point is that solar panels only create energy during the daytime. Electricity is very difficult to store in batteries, so home systems cannot provide energy at night. Even Marro’s battery backup does not function at night; it only kicks in when the grid goes down.

CoverStory_10Third, you need a significant amount of rooftop space to make the investment worthwhile. The roof on my house is not large enough to accommodate panels for a 5000-watt system, so I’d have to settle for less power and therefore less savings my the energy bill.

The final cost of a PV system is highly variable, but instead of thousands of dollars, think in terms of tens of thousands. With no state rebate in sight, affordability goes out the hurricane-proof window. Passive solar technologies, such as hot-water heaters, are much more affordable.

The race to solar is not the only option for saving energy and trying to live in harmony with the environment around your home. Take a cue from the three dreamers in Miami who are pushing the alternative-energy envelope. All of them thought of ways to conserve energy before trying to produce more of it themselves. They invested in high-quality insulation, creative ways to reuse water, and other measures to simplify their lifestyles.

These early birds have adopted home-based conservation and renewable resources. They work with the heat instead of against it. They see the sun less as a menace to be controlled and more as an ally that gives us life and new energy.

They are the exceptions. In Miami, it seems very few people are paying attention to the sun.


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