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Solar energy is the best backup

Some of us lost power for hours or days during the past six weeks of almost nonstop hurricanes. We've seen newspaper photographs and TV images of our neighbors around the state struggling to survive without air conditioning, lights and/or refrigeration. At home centers, we've seen long lines of shoppers waiting for the next shipment of generators.

Bill Young knows a lot about this. A senior research engineer at the Florida Solar Energy Center, Young specializes in emergency power and disaster relief. He teaches a course for emergency management and disaster relief agencies on using solar energy during the loss of electric power after a disaster.

"People often still think first about getting gas generators," Young says, "but if electricity is out in an area, you can't use gas pumps to get your fuel. After Hurricane Andrew, there were 8,000 gas generators onsite but no gas available."

After hurricanes Charley and Frances, several people died or were sickened by carbon monoxide poisoning, and a Tampa home burned down when generator gas fumes were ignited by a water heater's open flame.

Young suggests that homeowners start planning to make their homes more self-sufficient. Taking steps now could allow them to continue living in a near-normal manner for hours, days or even weeks after a disaster knocks out power.

The cheapest and simplest thing to do is to buy a portable photovoltaics system, Young says. Check your phone book for the names of contractors who sell solar electricity panels and obtain information on how these systems work.

You can also get good information at energynotes/en-11.htm.

Look for a small PV system of 200 to 500 watts. You'll probably pay $1,500 to $3,500, but you'll be able to power critical items when electricity is not available. You'll be able to use your phone, radio and TV, selected lights and a small fridge.

These systems are ready to use, easy to hook up and small enough to be moved in the trunk of your car. Using a solar electric system for emergency power will let you stay in your home for an extended time until the electricity is restored.

The better alternative, if you can afford it, is to buy a system big enough to power more items or your entire house. Systems from 2,000 to 5,000 or 6,000 watts can give you a sustainable home.

Lots of houses are being built with solar panels integrated into the roof for backup or supplemental power, but you can have these systems available for use in your home now. At average costs of around $7 per watt, you'll spend $14,000 or more for a system, but you'll buy security.

A system of 2,000 watts could run about half the electric-powered appliances and lights in your home, including the refrigerator. Bigger systems will power your air conditioner. Photovoltaic systems have been in use for nearly 50 years, powering space satellites, emergency lighting systems, warning signs and just about any type of remote power need.

Nationwide, about 20,000 homes get all their power from solar electric systems, primarily because they are too far from the power grid to make running electric lines economical.

Many states have encouraged their residents to use solar energy along with other energy-saving strategies. In Florida, for example, the state's energy office put up $600,000 during the past year to provide rebates to homeowners, governments and businesses that wanted to install PV systems. Fifty-two rebates were awarded, ranging from $4,800 to $38,400.

People planning to build a home should consider working with a contractor who can install a photovoltaic system into the roof to provide backup and supplemental power.

And even if you're not planning a home, consider a solar system as an emergency backup.

Ken Sheinkopf is associate director for the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa. For more information on energy efficiency and renewable energy, visit the center's Web site at