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At a large, brick house on Reno Road NW last Friday afternoon, casual passersby would have been forgiven for thinking a baby shower was underway. Smiling attendants in sky blue polos welcomed guests to a yard with tables full of refreshments, as a photographer snapped away. Inside, neighbors flocked to congratulate a visibly pregnant woman, while her husband flitted around restocking the beverages.
Instead of “It’s a Girl!” though, the outside, however, said “We’ve Gone Solar!” Instead of a birth weight, the number on everyone’s lips was in kilowatts—11.96, to be exact. The guests—including a city councilmember and the head of the District Department of the Environment—were there to celebrate the biggest residential solar installation in Washington D.C., and the parents could not be prouder.
“Since we got married, we’ve been on this quest to green our home and green our lives,” said Shelley Cohen (who has one little girl, with another on the way). She and her husband Mike Gala moved out of their condo in Cathedral Heights three years ago into this four-bedroom, 2,600 square foot homestead. Cohen didn’t like the house at first sight, but Gala, an architect, saw the ample roof space as an opportunity for more photovoltaic panels. To get the project done, they issued a request for proposal, and chose Astrum Solar, a “turnkey shop” that deals with everything from financing to installation to hooking up to the grid.
They didn’t want to just revamp their home, though. It’s a demonstration project as well: To spread the green gospel, Cohen and Gala went on Planet Green’s Renovation Nation show. A PR firm repped their ribbon-cutting party, promising a “great environmental and human interest story, complete with strong visual elements.” Those blue-clad attendants came on the behalf of Astrum Solar, the second biggest installer of solar systems in D.C., which gave neighbors price quotes on the spot.
“Our goal was to show that you can live an urban lifestyle and still be eco-friendly,” said Cohen, speaking to the assembled crowd from her raised deck.
Of course, there’s a fallacy there—urbanity is eco-friendly. Gala and Cohen probably un-greened their lifestyle a bit by leaving a multi-unit building for their detached, single-family house.
It’s hard to argue with the financing, though. Using all the available federal and municipal incentives available, the couple only paid about 10 percent of the $60,000 price tag. Since the set-up will take care of 80 percent of their energy needs, that pays itself back within a couple of years.
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh did a turn on the deck, adopting a saleswoman’s patter to promote the idea. “You actually sell back to PEPCO, and guess what, they pay you!”
Oddly enough, Ward 3—which includes 6,500 residents with some of the highest incomes in the city—is dismal for solar installations. Andrea Limauro, the Office of Planning’s neighborhood planning coordinator for Ward 3, gave some context: In a small study area where the city is working to encourage sustainability projects, there are only four residential solar installations for 6,500 residents—the panels on Reno Road doubled the ward’s area’s total kilowattage. (That’s compared to the 45 households who’ve installed panels in Mount Pleasant alone, facilitated by a solar coop that helps secure materials and expertise at a lower cost). “It’s a little depressing,” said Limauro. “One of the reasons is it’s just kind of daunting.”
Astrum Solar, for one, is hoping more Ward 3 residents will take the convenience of an all-things-included package deal. As Housing Complex left, the company’s marketing director was directing one of her employees in a photoshoot around their green-logoed pickup trucks and Priuses. “No, look like you’re really actually getting in the car,” she said.