Tom Eblen

Solar home is a net benefit

Richard Levine has heard all of the arguments about why solar energy won't work in Kentucky.

And he has been defying them for three decades.

Levine, a University of Kentucky architecture professor, designed and built one of the nation's first solar homes on 32 acres he bought in 1974 near Raven Run Nature Sanctuary. He has been living there ever since.

Last month, he finished adding new high-tech solar panels to the roof of a studio next to his home that will make both buildings "net zero." That means, over the course of a year, the photo-voltaic cells will produce as much electricity as the buildings consume.

"But to do it I may have to unplug my hot tub and convince my daughter to turn off her computer at night," Levine said with a smile.Raven Run House has been written about in books, magazines and architecture journals all over the world but has received little attention in Kentucky. That's mostly because Levine's late wife, artist Anne Kemper Frye, who died in 2005, wanted privacy.

Levine, co-director of UK's Center for Sustainable Cities, is continuing to use his live-in laboratory to explore new home design and energy technologies he thinks will become more important as utility rates rise and environmental concerns grow.

"All of these things are pointing to the fact that in the coming years we're not going to be building houses the way we do now," he said. "It's coming very quickly."

Levine was a young architect in the early 1970s when the Arab oil embargo and the fledgling environmental movement first got Americans thinking about renewable energy.

At the time, solar energy was the province of scientists and hippies; few architects paid much attention to it. Levine thought buildings would need to become more energy-efficient, so he decided to explore the possibilities.

He spent nearly a year researching and designing his home to use both kinds of solar energy: "passive," in which design exploits the sun's natural light and warmth, and "active," in which mechanical devices capture and store it.

Levine began work on the house in 1975. The project took eight years, mostly because he and students did most of the construction — and because the Levine family lived there the whole time. He has never figured the total cost, but said, "It wasn't terribly expensive."

The design Levine created was a 40-foot cube, sliced diagonally to create a large hexagonal surface. That surface faced south at a 54-degree angle, the optimal position to catch winter sunlight.

On that 32-foot sloping surface, Levine installed vertical rows of solar collectors, which warmed air and stored it in bins of crushed stone in the basement to provide heat with a system he patented. He alternated those collectors with rows of narrow windows he called "sundows" that let in natural light and warmth.

A greenhouse at the base of the slope also helps light and heat the home, and it provides a year-round growing environment for vegetables and exotic plants.

The tall sides of the home that face northeast and northwest have many small, square windows of three kinds. Double-layered glass windows provide views and light. Screened ones provide ventilation; cool night breezes coming up from Raven Run Creek make summer air conditioning unnecessary. Translucent windows made of six layers of plastic (for insulation) light each room.

The home's walls were well-insulated by 1970s standards, but the materials weren't nearly as good as the super-insulation available today. Likewise, most of today's high-efficiency windows didn't exist then, so Levine designed and made his own window systems.

Levine installed two composting toilets in the house, which have worked well with minimal maintenance. There are several experimental energy systems he installed — but rarely needs to use — such as a geothermal heat pump, a highly efficient wood-burning boiler and an air-circulating fireplace.

Levine's decision to take 1970s technology as far as he could resulted in a home that is as weird-looking outside as it is strikingly beautiful inside.

The living area is open and airy, with white walls, oak woodwork and a central oak staircase that provides a visual centerpiece. Variously shaped rooms on multiple levels open to the staircase, making the 3,000-square-foot space seem larger.

Levine just added 30 new photo-voltaic panels to the roof of his studio to generate electricity. The panels have micro-inverters that make solar-generated power usable at a lower cost than old inverter systems did. Each panel's performance can be monitored by computer; you can see it from a link on Levine's Web site:

He doesn't need batteries to store the power his photo-voltaic cells produce, because "net metering" allows him to feed power to his utility company on sunny days and draw from it on cloudy ones. Over the course of a year, it should balance out.

Some utilities, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, buy from small renewable power producers, allowing them to make a profit. In Central Kentucky, though, utilities are only required to swap power, so the best a solar-generating homeowner can do is break even.

Levine thinks changing Kentucky's net-metering law to allow producers to profit would encourage more solar generation by both homes and commercial buildings.

In addition to Levine's studio renovation, construction is wrapping up on a weekend home he designed on Herrington Lake for another UK professor. It has well-insulated walls and windows and a $10,000 photo-voltaic system that will make the home net-zero.

"That's really very little to pay for energy independence," Levine said. Solar systems are getting better and cheaper all the time, and tax credits provide attractive incentives for installing them.

Once the first energy crisis passed in the early 1980s, Americans went back to then-cheap fossil fuels and paid little attention to renewable energy. European countries have become the technology leaders.

"It's just amazing how far ahead they are in many ways; even China is ahead of us," Levine said. "It's very sad, really. They used to come here for ideas."

About 40 percent of all U.S. energy is consumed by buildings. Levine thinks "green" architecture for new buildings — and retrofitting of old ones — will become more popular as energy prices rise. Homes offer some of the best opportunities for better design, better insulation and small-scale renewable energy systems.

"I think it's something that any rational homeowner will want to consider," Levine said with the pride of a pioneer. "I can't see a better, more guaranteed investment."

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