Solar-Powered Homes Shine Light on Conservation

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From the outside, Leroy Harvey's East Lansing home looks typical: front porch, side windows, manicured yard. But step inside, and its novelty becomes clear.

"Primarily what we're doing here is using solar energy for heating the house and for lighting," says Harvey, a professor of energy resources at MSU.

Harvey opened his house to the public as part of the National Solar Tour. The tour shows people how easy and subtle solar-powering a home can be.

"You wouldn't notice this house was solar powererd. Most of the features are hidden."

Harvey's house is what he calls "passive solar powered," meaning there are no machines aiding in the absorption of solar heat. His house faces south, so sunligh alone gives the home 10 percent of its heat. Harvey built his home in 1995 using special windows and insulation to keep the heat in and the cold out. The amenities cost more initially, but ultimately they lead to smaller bills. Harvey says his gas bills only run around $300 a year.

It's not just new homes that can be energy efficient, however. An industrial-looking house on Bridge Street in Dimondale was built in 1897, but it's been solar-powered since 2001.

Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association's Jennifer Malinowski says the house underwent insulation, heating and wiring transformations to become what it is today. The house has six 300-foot solar panels and a dual-mode system for heating. A small shed next to the house also features solar shingles.

"They're thin," Malinowski says of the shingles. "They stick right on your roof. They don't look like your typical solar power source."

There are a reported 400 solar-powered homes in Michigan. And contrary to popular belief, they do work even when the sun isn't out. But energy-efficient homes are just one piece of the conservationist puzzle.

"Solar isn't the cure all," reminds Harvey.

But at least some homes are pointed in the right direction.