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Greenest house? It's one that's already built

Rather than starting over with a new house, Jean Marie Waddell and Donna Miller erected a solar array near the entry to their home in the Town of Hudson. Their system has a dozen panels, each 6 feet by 3-and-a-half feet. They figure it produces three-fifths of the electricity they use. (Photo by Judy Wiff)

When they built their rambler 17 years ago, Donna Miller and Jean Marie Waddell admit they were thinking more of positioning the house to maximize the views than siting it for solar energy.

The main rooms in their Tanney Ridge house in the Town of Hudson look out toward a Game Unlimited hunting preserve and what Miller calls “a lovely bowl” of nature.

But several years ago, as the two began thinking about getting older and maintaining their independence, they considered building a smaller, more energy-efficient house.

“As two single, retired ladies, we need to save money,” Miller said.

But, she said, a new house didn’t make financial sense.

As the two considered their options, they took to heart the advice of an architect who said, “The greenest house is one that’s already built,” Miller recalled.

So instead of tackling the challenge of building again and moving from their much-loved home, in 2011 they erected a system of solar panels outside their garage. The system, they figure, produces about three-fifths of the electricity they use.

“We did it for ethical reasons,” Miller said. “A big reason for photovoltaic being the best for us is you are producing electricity whether you are using it or not – if the sun is shining.”

The idea of conservation was not new to either of the women. Both lived in conservative, energy-frugal homes, hanging clothes to dry rather than running a dryer and not heating the oven for just one dish.

The two didn’t become environmentally aware just in the past couple of years, Waddell said.

“We both have been very energy conscious,” she said, adding that when she taught chemistry at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn., she started a course in which the students set up and ran a recycling program for the entire 600-acre campus.

Waddell, who grew up in Chippewa Falls, taught 10 years in a private college prep school in Tennessee. Miller, who is from Tennessee, taught social studies and U.S. history at another private school in Chattanooga.

When they first met, both were married, but both later divorced and eventually, with their children raised, decided to combine households.

Waddell wanted to move back to this area, and her friend agreed.

“I had always wanted to live in an area where there were four distinct seasons and there was snow on the ground at Christmas,” Miller said.

Back in the Midwest, Waddell started a private tutoring business, teaching mostly math. Miller got a job teaching history at St. Paul Academy until she retired and went to work for Waddell, helping students prepare to take the ACT.

As they began looking at solar home energy, they learned of three strategies, Waddell said.

A householder could decide to go completely off the grid and install solar collectors that feed electricity into storage batteries.

“That’s not very common,” Waddell said.

“It’s also very expensive,” Miller said.

Another process stores sun energy in a fluid that is used to heat water and the home.

The third method, which they chose, uses a photovoltaic array — solar panels — to convert sunlight to electrical energy. Waddell and Miller’s system has a dozen panels, each 6 feet by 3-and-a-half feet, combining to make an array that’s 252 square feet.

In their case, the electricity goes from the panels via conduit into the garage and then into the house where inverters change the direct current energy to alternating current electricity.

The electricity from their PV system goes into the St. Croix Electric Cooperative grid. Waddell and Miller have two meters in their house — one to measure the electricity they use and one to measure the electricity they produce.

Whether the electricity they make is used in their house or not is a question neither can answer.

“That’s a technology I’ve never really understood,” Waddell said.

But what she does understand is that if they use 500 kilowatt hours of electricity a month and produce 400 kWh, they pay the cooperative for 100 kWh.

Although prices have come down substantially, their system cost about $20,000 installed. The cooperative gave them a $1,000 rebate, reducing the price to $19,000, and Waddell will recoup 30 percent of that through federal income tax credits.

That leaves a net cost of $13,300. Miller said they will recover that through electric-bill savings in about 22 years.

Still, she said, finances weren’t their main motivator.

“We did it for ethical reasons,” Miller said. “The sun is there, the sun is shining, and we should use it.”

Because the cost of the newer PV systems is less, homeowners installing those will see a faster payback, Waddell said.

Miller and Waddell’s grid was expected to produce 300 kWh a month and has been averaging 350.

“It’s doing what it is supposed to do,” Waddell said.

In August they used 588 kWh and produced 406, which resulted in a savings of a little over $45 on their electric bill.

In the winter when the air is clearer, the system works even better, Miller said.

The two women admit to an emotional benefit too.

“It’s made me feel a little bit better,” Miller said.

She added it’s made her more aware of ways energy can be conserved.

Waddell said it’s interesting to watch the sky and check the dials to see how much energy is being converted.

“It’s fun. It’s really fun to watch it,” Miller said.

They are toying with the idea of adding more panels.

Their system was designed and installed by Kristopher Schmid of Legacy Solar. Waddell describes him as an extremely patient person who took time to answer their many questions.

The only maintenance the panels require is to be manually tilted twice a year as the position of the sun changes.

“Once you have the investment in the system, you are essentially providing the electricity for free, and you are doing no more damage to the environment,” Waddell said. “The sun is a free source of energy. Gas is cheaper than electricity, but it’s not free.”

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.