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21st Century Conservation: One American Family's Story - 2002-04-19

Along a tree-lined street in the outskirts of Washington, all of the homes look pretty much alike. Built before the 1920s, the houses are made of wood and have large windows and high ceilings. And they cost a fortune to heat.

Mike Tidwell decided to make some changes around the house he shares with his wife Catherine Varchaver and their four-year-old son.

"It's been easy. It's been not very expensive. And it's totally unobtrusive," Mr. Tidwell said. "They started with simple things like drying their laundry on a clothesline, switching to energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs and investing in a high efficiency refrigerator. "

Then Catherine decided she didn't want to suffer through another winter in a cold house. So they replaced the cast iron radiators with a modern potbelly stove that burns maize or corn for heat, and installed solar panels to supply electricity.

"Right now all the electricity is coming from the sun as we speak, for our lights, for our computer and there is no way to know where the source of that electricity is, it is a very unobtrusive technology, the solar panels that produce it," he explained.

Mike Tidwell installed solar panels on his roof by himself.

"We have 36 black solar panels that have no moving parts. They make no noise whatsoever, but which are struck by the sunlight and convert that sunlight directly into electrons that are brought together to form an electrical current," said Mr. Tidwell. "And then at the top there you see we have a rectangular yellowish panel and that is 1.21 x 1.82 meters panel and that panel is actually trapping sunlight and converting it to infrared heat. That infrared heat then super heats cold water which is pumped from the basement up to our roof. That water is superheated by the infrared heat that is trapped by the sunlight and then that water is pumped back down to the basement where it enters our hot water tank."

Skirble: "What happens on a cloudy day? Or on a rainy day? Or on one of those long [dark] winter days?"

Tidwell: "We are not off the grid as is the popular phrase. We are connected to the local electric provider, the local utility, but we use very, very little electricity from them. But, by being connected to the grid on cloudy days - when we are not creating any [solar] electricity whatsoever - we draw our electricity from the local utility."

Mike Tidwell walks over to the utility company electric meter mounted on the side of the house.

"You can see this meter is standing still right now, and in fact in a minute it is going to start going backwards. [You see] that it is [now] going backwards slowly. What happens is that we are creating with all the electricity that we are using in our house we are still creating more than we can use. What happens is the state of Maryland and about 32 other states require electricity utilities to accept excess electricity from home residential solar production," he said. "That means that the solar panels on our roof during the day are creating more electricity than we need to run our refrigerator, our computer, our lights everything in our house that is using electricity right now is still using less than the panels on the roof are creating. At night when there is no sun out, but we are still using electricity then our meter will run forwards. And, this is how we keep our accounts square with the local utility [company]," Mr. Tidwell said.

The solar panels supply about 70 percent of the household electric and hot water needs. All the heat for the house comes from the maize-burning stove located behind a coffee table in a corner of the living room.

"And, all that is burning is corn, nothing else, shelled corn. There is no wood in there - no fossil fuels in there, just corn. You can see that corn burns with amazing efficiency and puts out an amazing amount of heat," Mr. Tidwell said.

He and his wife Catherine Varchaver decided to turn to renewable energy because they wanted to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels, which are thought to cause global warming.

Mike Tidwell: "Before we could ask anyone else to change, before we could ask our leaders to change, before we could ask our neighbors to change we knew that we needed to change and that's how we got started."

Skirble: "Catherine, did you think this was something do-able?"

Catherine Varchaver: "I was a little bit skeptical at first. I got the idea of the solar panels. The corn-burning stove sounded kind of weird. I wasn't sure what that was all about, but I was seduced by the promise of a warmer winter. Once I saw it come into being I was sold and now there is nothing I enjoy more than going to sit in front of that stove. I'll just find any excuse to be in front of the warm fire."

Skirble: "How typical are the two of you?"

Mike Tidwell: "We feel as Americans that we have an obligation, not only to our four year old son, but to all the nations of the world to begin an energy revolution house-by-house and neighborhood-by-neighborhood. Are we typical? No we are not typical. We are very different in our level of awareness of global warming and the connection that we've made between individual behavior and consequences. We understand that connection between personal connection and global climate change.

Skirble: "What is it going to take to raise consciousness among Americans about their role in society [to address global warming]?"

Mike Tidwell: "Scientists are telling us right now that the greatest single issue affecting our lives in the 21st century, is global warming. This is the issue that is going to frame our lives. It is going to drive our politics, drive our agriculture and drive how we conduct our lives. However, given that reality we have no leadership. No one is leading us on this issue in this country. So, we need education and leadership and that is one of the reasons that Catherine and I made the switch in our own home, not only because it was the right thing for us to do, but as a concrete example to other people, as a concrete education tool."

Mike Tidwell estimates they have cut household carbon emissions by 90 percent. And, his actions have already inspired others. In fact, his community plans to build an 8 meter high silo to hold corn to supply the growing number of families with corn burning stoves.