Benecia’s solar houses failed to bring anticipated savings

The Associated Press
Monday March 19, 2001

20-year-old experimental neighborhood not living up to promises, owners say 


BENICIA – A 258-home neighborhood here was an innovative experiment in energy efficiency — 20 years ago. 

Now, with a different energy crisis bringing renewed attention to solar power, some residents say the savings don’t quite measure up. 

Rooftop solar water heaters, double paned windows and walls insulated six inches thick didn’t bring the savings they expected and many have jettisoned solar power all together after facing repairs they couldn’t afford. 

“In the beginning, it worked out great,” said Lucy Grijalva, who bought her home 18 years ago. 

Thanks to the federal government, she enjoyed a $10,000 tax credit for buying the solar-equipped home. 

The credit, sparked by the 1973 oil embargo, was created as part of a federal program to offset the country’s energy crisis. 

Both homeowners and developers received the tax credit, so Benicia’s Southhampton Co. jumped on it. 

Architects designed the houses for passive and active solar energy, said Stuart Posselt, one of the project’s managers. 

The homes had 12 inches of insulation in the ceilings and every opening in the walls was caulked to keep the cool or hot air inside. Landscapers designed the lots with trees that lost their leaves in the fall so as not to obstruct winter sun. Ceiling fans circulated warm air blown from fireplace fans. Solar panels on the roofs heated water pumped to a hot water tank. The panels also help heat the house. 

“When this was done, it was state of the art,” Posselt said. 

That was two decades ago, and many homeowners have abandoned their solar panels when faced with repair bills costing thousands of dollars. 

Shirley Florio moved into her house six years ago, she said, because it was affordable and well constructed. 

When it came time to get a new roof, she took off the solar panels. She thought about fixing her broken water tank, and received a $3,500 estimate to fix it and $7,000 estimate to replace it. 

“I said, ’Forget it,”’ she said. “I didn’t notice that much of a benefit.” 

J.D. and Lorna-Dee Johnson said their system has worked well for the six years they have lived in their house, but it’s starting to break down. 

They will fix their water tank because they care about energy conservation and they can afford the repairs. They save about $25 a month on their gas bill.