OWINGS – At first glance, Bryan Murtha would seem like the normal energy- guzzling American: He commutes more than 40 miles to work from his rural, air- conditioned suburban home to work in downtown Washington.
A closer look may surprise you. The power meter on the back of his house goes backwards, his truck is plugged into a wall and nearly every electric appliance is hooked up to a power strip for hassle-free conservation.
Murtha, a Department of Energy employee, is nearly off the conventional power grid. And with rising heating oil costs, escalating gas prices and rolling West Coast blackouts, people like him may soon be more common.
The 60 solar panels stretched all the way across the roof of his Owings ranch home are the only visible difference between his house and the others in the neighborhood.
Yet while his neighbors are tapping power from the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, even on a cloudy day, like this one, his home is capable of producing more energy than he uses during the daytime. That sends his power meter in reverse and has helped him realize his goal of energy self-sufficiency.
And he has statistics to prove it.
Murtha has detailed charts and graphs with light bulbs instead of bars, showing his energy consumption and monthly bills over the last decade. Next to every major change in consumption there is an accompanying notation.
For example, on a chart showing his energy consumption during January 1999 there is a little asterisk noting that was the month he first installed the solar array on his roof.
The solar panels have had a dramatic effect on his electric bills. In 1996, the annual electric bill for his 1,400-square-foot home, excluding the basement, was $923, but in 1999, when he installed the panels, it fell to $213, his figures show.
SMECO declined to provide a comparative figure for a typical customer saying there are too many variables to provide a realistic number.
The Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, said a typical electric customer would pay about $75 to $100 per month for 750 kilowatt-hours, although summer rates could put that figure somewhat higher.
Solar power has a particularly large effect on Murtha’s bills in May and September, when he doesn’t have to use the air conditioner, but the sun is still strong. In May 1999, computers at SMECO went a bit haywire, he said, when he earned a bill of negative $3.78.
Maryland’s net-metering law requires homeowners be compensated for any power put back onto the grid.
“They had to do my bill by hand,” he said.
Murtha was first inspired during the 1970s sitting in lines at the gas stations caused by the OPEC oil embargo, he said.
“I remember hearing in the oil embargo, `Too bad you can’t charge your car with the sun,'” he recounted. “And that kind of stuck in my brain. I said, `Why can’t you?'”
So, in 1999, with the help of state and federal grants and tax credits, he paid $4,000 for an $11,000 solar system.
The Maryland Energy Administration has about $50,000 of similar grants available. This year, offering $3,600 per customer, it hopes to set up 20 systems statewide.
There are relatively few people like Murtha in the state, but with a waiting list for the Maryland Residential Rooftops Program, interest is growing.
However, Murtha, who was among the first to take advantage of the program, said he believes solar power won’t catch on until another major crisis, like the OPEC oil embargo, afflicts the nation’s power supply – a prospect that he and his wife Sharon almost embrace.
That time may be at hand, at least in California. Since California began its rolling blackouts to deal with energy shortages, interest in solar power has increased “10 times,” said Sandy Miller, of California’s Renewable Energy and Renewable Buy-down Program.
“It’s a golden opportunity,” Miller said. “It’s a mixed blessing . . . It will be an opportunity for the solar industry to establish itself . . . We’ve surpassed three years of reservations in three months.”
The East Coast has avoided California’s deregulation debacle, but it hasn’t been immune to energy problems. Natural gas and heating oil prices increased almost 50 percent this year due to a December cold snap and increasing demand, said the Maryland Public Service Commission.
And as the summer driving season hits, some fear gas prices could go even higher than last summer when it reached $2 a gallon in some areas. Prices already jumped from $1.44 a gallon to $1.62 in the last month, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Here in Maryland, electricity is still relatively cheap and only about 30 homes use solar panels, mostly because of the large up-front costs and the relatively low price of electricity.
It will take Murtha 18 years to regain the cost of the panels if energy prices remain the same.
However, in addition to the knowledge he is conserving the environment, Murtha says he enjoys the stability his system offers in case anything unexpected (i.e. California-style rolling blackouts) happens.
“It’s very, very stable,” he said. “If we had an oil embargo, what do I care?”
Murtha also smirks slightly at the knowledge that when there’s a blackout, his house is also the only one in the neighborhood with lights and, because his neighborhood has well water, the ability to flush the toilet.
Conservation, however, not simply solar power, is his real passion. He says that by eliminating unnecessary electric items from the house, one can drastically cut energy consumption.
He’s so involved in conservation, his co-workers call him “Captain Energy,” and he’s not averse to proselytizing about his passion.
“Captain Energy has been with us for several months and life has not been the same since,” said co-worker, Chris Mosley. “We constantly have to work in the dark and turn all of our computers off every time we leave our desks – even to use the restroom. He does allow us to leave one small light on to preserve the life of an African violet – he didn’t give in without a battle.”
Although he is somewhat obsessive about conservation, Murtha says he is still wants the same thing all Americans want.
“I don’t want to be uncomfortable,” he said. “I want to be a typical American.”
His American-ness is typified by his 40-mile round-trip daily commute. For him, however, it’s an “all-electric commute.”
In the morning, he drives his electric Ford Ranger to the New Carrollton Metro Station, where he takes the subway to work.
“The lease of the Ford Ranger Electric is very courageous,” said another co-worker, Nakia Wingfield. “Being the guinea pig for technology is something I personally could not do.”
His electric truck, which he calls Sunny because it’s powered primarily by his solar panels, emits no pollution and little sound. Turning the key, and hearing nothing is a surreal experience. It’s more like flipping a light switch than starting a car.
Still, the car has its limitations. It can only go 75 miles per hour and must be recharged every 50 to 70 miles depending on the temperature.
Murtha said he is often asked whether he could be stranded if he was stuck in a long traffic jam. However, unlike conventional cars, the electric truck doesn’t use any power and is completely silent when it sits idle.
And that efficiency makes “Captain Energy” happy. He isn’t opposed to using energy, he’s opposed to wasting it.