The Solar Home of the Future May Be Here Today

In what was expected to be the first of 100 such dwellings, a solar home in Phoenix, AZ enabled the owner to sell electricity back into the grid and/or charge up an electric car.

| May/June 1981

Did you know that the roof of your house could probably supply you with all the electricity you'll ever need, and keep your car running without any fossil fuels? Many of you probably have envisioned photovoltaic solar panels capable of such feats while thinking that their practical manufacture is ten or perhaps even 20 years down the road.

Well, I've got good news for you: the solar home of the future is here now. On May 29, 1980 an entirely solar electric house was completed by John F. Long Homes of Phoenix, Arizona. And that structure is only the beginning. Many other such residences are now being built to produce a surplus of electricity during the day. Enough of an excess, in fact, to charge the batteries in an electric car or to be sold to the power company, offsetting any commercial "juice" the homeowner may use during non-daylight hours.

My wife and I were anxious to see Long's dream house for ourselves, so we took a trip to Phoenix. The home we visited was a modest, conventional-looking building, but was completely equipped with all the electrical appliances found in other residences in the area including air conditioning. In fact, the only visible difference between that dwelling and the neighboring homes was its south-facing roof, which was covered with 7,200 four-inch photovoltaic cells wired together to produce over 6,000 watts of direct current (DC) electricity, which is then converted into standard alternating house current (AC) by an inverter that's about the size of a TV set.

Get a Check Instead of a Bill From the Power Company

Any extra electricity produced, above and beyond what's needed by the solar home's residents during the day, is fed back into the utility company's powerlines as credit toward the purchased wattage used when the sun isn't shining. Two electric meters are employed: One records the amount of power coming from the utility into the house. The other registers the surplus solar power going to the electric company for credit. During its first near-year of use, the initial home has sold two kilowatts of electricity for each one kilowatt it buys from the utility. In effect, it's a small power plant!

When we visited the Phoenix area last summer, the temperature was a sizzling 104°F, but the thermostat inside the solar electric abode registered a cool 68°. The air conditioner was working hard, yet as indicated by the meters there was still a plentiful daily flow of power going back to the utility company for credit.

The local electric plant, known as the Salt River Project, is cooperating in this effort in order to evaluate the compatibility, quality, and control problems (if any) associated with the solar power being fed into its lines. If the project proves successful, a large number of similar installations supplying electricity to the system during the day would help to offset "peak loads" ... those periods when air conditioning use is greatest. After all, the heaviest demand for electric cooling occurs during the sunniest part of the day, and that's also the time when solar cells are operating at top efficiency!

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