Peak performer

Peak performer

A Sierra Madre couple welcomes the clean and cost-efficient sun into their home

By Christopher Nyerges 01/22/2009

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While walking one day near the foothills home of Renee Cossutta and Debbie Ross, I noticed an array of solar panels on the carport. I boldly went up to the door, knocked and began asking questions.

Cossutta told me that she had been interested in conservation — and in localized production — for years, and had always made the effort not to overuse resources. For more than a decade she and her partner wanted their own solar electrical system. She had read about the adverse effects from our way of generating electricity and wanted to be a part of the solution.
Some years ago, she contacted the folks at Real Goods in Hopland, a tiny unincorporated town in Northern California, and asked what it would take to install a solar system. After analyzing the situation, the company determined that it would not be cost-effective to install panels on the roof because there was not enough sunlight there to generate an amount of electricity that would justify the installation costs.

Then, more than two years ago, they realized that an area that had been used for parking received more sun. They once again consulted with the folks at Real Goods and concluded they could create a solar electrical system that would work. An architect friend of theirs, Phillip Collins, designed a combination carport and grape arbor that would also support the solar modules.

Once the structure was built, Tom Robinson and others from the Southern California branch of Real Goods came out to the house and installed the system.

“This was my first opportunity to do something like this,” said Cossutta. “It took two days for Real Goods to install our system and we were very impressed with them.”

The system chosen for this household was grid-connected, meaning there were no batteries. There are 14 modules, manufactured by Sharp, each rated at 160 watts. The inverter, measuring about 3 feet by 18 inches, is manufactured by Xantrex, and connects to the net meter, sometimes called a “time of use” meter.

During the day — when Ross and Cossutta are away at work — this system feeds electricity into the grid. The monthly electric bills show how much power their system generates and how much electricity they use. Because the Edison Co. places a higher value on the peak-hour electricity from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., they actually get paid more for each peak hour of their generated electricity than they are charged for their off-peak electrical usage.

“The size of our system was designed by Real Goods so it would provide us with as much electricity as we needed,” explained Cossutta.

The entire system, including installation, cost about $12,000 and will pay for itself when it is about 10 years old — maybe sooner if the price of electricity continues to rise. They also received tax credits from the government and rebates from Edison.
Did having a solar electrical system change the way they did things?

“Well, we produce our own electricity, and you’d think that we’d no longer worry or think about it. But it has been just the opposite of what I expected,” said Cossutta. “We actually are more careful with our electrical usage now. It’s like if you grow your own strawberries in the yard. Yes, you have food, and that’s good, but you have to watch them to make sure they grow.”
Cossutta says that there is practically no maintenance required, except that occasionally during the dry season she gets up on the garage and hoses off accumulated dust. But otherwise, nothing really needs doing.

What advice would she offer to those wanting to get into the solar age?

“Every now and then, someone will come up to the house and ask about our solar panels,” said Cossutta. “I tell them to look online and read about solar electricity. Find out what it means to have solar power. Learn how it pays for itself. Do plenty of research first so you know what you’re getting into. Ten years ago, it wasn’t so easy to find this information, but today there is a lot of information out there. Go and talk to anyone you know who has done this. And look at the Real Goods catalog, and check them out online.”
Christopher Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine, the author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and an occasional blogger of current events. He can be contacted via this paper or at


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