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Solar dreams in the snow

Anya Schoolman and her son Walter brought solar energy to Mt. Pleasant.

Activitst Anya Schoolman and her son Walter started a solar coop in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in Washington, DC.

Jimmy Carter was ahead of his time. The president famously installed solar panels on the roof of the White House West Wing in 1979 to highlight his “new solar strategy” for the nation. The energy-saving move was largely symbolic (the solar cells were used to heat hot water for the staff), and the panels were removed by President Reagan in 1986. Some 30 years later, the nation may finally be ready for the odd-looking rooftop collectors. The recent success of some regional solar co-operatives in the District and its suburbs may herald a grass-roots energy revolution.

Carter would, no doubt, be proud. But it turns out that the two 12-year-old boys who created the Mt. Pleasant Solar Coop three years ago were inspired by another executive officer: Vice President Al Gore.

Walter Lynn and Diego Arene-Morley were compelled by Gore’s climate documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” to study energy consumption in their homes and those of their friends and neighbors. What began in 2006 as an examination of fluorescent light bulbs has blossomed, with the help of Walter’s activist mother Anya Schoolman, into a significant solar co-op with some fifty households participating to date.

Schoolman presented her co-op model to a room of contractors, lobbyists, and solar panel installers in a workshop on a snowy day at the final session of the Solar Energy Focus Conference in Gaithersburg, Md. The conference, which featured plenary speakers from state government, industry, and academia, was hosted by the Maryland, DC, and Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association.

Not Just for Hippies

In the process of building the cooperative and setting up the solar panels, Schoolman and her family learned a few things. Her roof, it turns out, had seven layers that had to be pulled away before she could have her panels installed. Cian Robinson, a Martinsville, Va. management consultant, called it a “burrito roof.”

Other lessons: some of her neighbors are a little crazy, the DC City Council can be a boon (but the regulation process is a boodoggle), and above all, demand for solar is surprisingly strong.

“People want it in a real, tangible way,” Schoolman said, noting that the members of the co-operative, who span race, class, gender, and ethnic lines, are motivated by a desire to improve their homes. They are not the sort of people who would think, necessarily, of attending a candlelight vigil on the Mall to raise awareness of the climate talks in Copenhagen, which started today.

Schoolman’s neighborhood, which is bordered by Adams Mill Road and 17th street on the east and west, and Newton and Irving streets on the north and south, is a somewhat-gentrified middle-class Latino neighborhood with a sizable Vietnamese community.

No Right Model

Schoolman lives in the middle of a block of row houses with flat roofs, typical of Mt. Pleasant but unusual in other residential neighborhoods. A flat roof is not ideal for solar paneling, which works better on a pitched roof, where it can be angled to face the sun more efficiently. But Schoolman’s family found that newly manufactured glue-on “peel and stick” solar strips were ideal for her home and have functioned well over the two months since their installation. The strips on Schoolman’s south-facing roof required no drilling into the roof, and no racking system for mounting.

Some of the other members of the cooperative were not so lucky, having east-facing roofs, consistent tree shade, and other impediments to solar. Schoolman said the key to addressing these was to allow each household to select its own.

She said the Common Cents Solar Coop in Chevy Chase uses an organizational model with paid staff, as opposed to the all-volunteer Mt. Pleasant group, and its members live in very different kinds of homes. The co-operative in Mt. Vernon uses a still different model; the Capitol Hill group, yet another.

The key, she said, is to find the solution that works best for each neighborhood.

‘My House, My Roof’

For all their differences, Mt. Pleasant residents share at least one thing with rural homeowners in far-flung parts of the country: they prize self-determination and hate corporate and bureaucratic meddling. Pepco, which sets rates and provides services behind a cloud of seeming inflexibility and obscurity, is a common target for residents’ complaints.

Schoolman noted that the energy company has recently spent millions on a green advertising campaign. That’s money, she says, that could be better spent working with homeowners to set up metering systems that function better with solar panels.

Or better yet, some may dream of a day of true energy independence, when homes are totally self-sustaining and Pepco is out of the picture. While bureaucrats negotiate in Copenhagen and local pols entertain lobbyists, “mainstream America is about ‘Let’s make this work in my community,'” Schoolman said. “My house, my roof, my self-reliance.”