September 28, 2006

Alternative Energies To Be On Display At Annual Dancing Rabbit Open House

High energy costs have plenty of folks investigating options for powering their lives. While recent price hikes have stirred interest in alternative energies, the concept is old hat for one local community.

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage has been running on solar power since its inception back in 1992. The residents of the community have since added wind power and have transformed a vehicle cooperative to run on biodiesel fuel.

These energy conservation practices are just a few of the ideals demonstrated by the community that will be explained in detail at the group’s annual open house. Dancing Rabbit will host this special event Saturday, September 30 from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. Tours during the afternoon will feature the solar and biodiesel power sources as well as organic gardens and alternative housing options such as straw-bale houses.

While the volatility of the current power market has spurred more interest in alternative energies, Dancing Rabbit traces its solar power back to different motives.

“Using less electricity is a great place to start to live more lightly on the earth, and Dancing Rabbit is no exception,” the group’s website states.

Cecil Scheib, one of the founders of the ecovillage, traces the history of solar power at DR back before even the first buildings were constructed.

“Solar power has been here since the beginning,” he said. “Even before we had the houses, we had to have the power to build the houses, so our first solar power system was installed.

Today, all of the homes and buildings at Dancing Rabbit are powered by a combination of solar power and wind power. The ecovillage is off the grid, meaning it is not connected to any energy source outside of the community.

Scheib noted that not being connected to the grid meant added cost for Dancing Rabbit. He stated about 25-percent of the cost of the community’s solar system was in the batteries that are used to store the power. A solar power system that is hooked into the grid would not require storage batteries. It would simply make the electric meter run backwards when excess solar power was being generated and going unused by the facility.

Therein lies much of the growing interest in the process. Local residents are well aware of the climbing costs of electricity.

Scheib indicated he has had a growing number of conversations with area residents regarding the viability of adding solar panels to homes or businesses.

“Back when electricity prices were six or seven cents per kWh, I would tell folks that solar power cost about double that,” he said. “Now that prices have risen it is becoming a little more financially feasible.”

He pointed to growing support for alternative energies by government as another reason it is becoming more economical.

“Congress recently approved legislation that offers up to a 30-percent tax rebate on solar panels,” he said. “So they have cut the cost by a third with one stroke of the pen.”

But even with electric rates rising and solar power becoming more affordable, Schieb warns that a quick switch won’t fix consumers problems.

“My first thought isn’t for everyone to fill their roofs with solar panels so they can start saving money on their electric bill,” Cecil said. “We all should just start by making sure we turn the lights off when we leave the room. Turn the thermostat up a little bit or use weather stripping or other cost-saving measures to cut our power use. The best way to save money on power is to conserve. That is way more important than where the power is coming from.”

However Dancing Rabbit’s solar power guru will be happy to talk with visitors at the open house about alternative power sources. Tours of Skyhouse will awe folks seeing a six- bedroom house that is totally powered by solar energy from its 2600 W solar panels on the roof. The group installed the power system at a cost of roughly $18,000.

In the Winter of 2004 Dancing Rabbit as a whole was generating 12.5 kilowatts of power either from solar or wind generation.

Scheib points out that if one small community can generate its own power, it makes people consider the bigger picture.

“I’ve always been amazed when I read that the United States could generate enough solar power for the whole country in a 200-square mile area of the Arizona dessert,” he said. “Why waste a couple hundred square miles of Earth, when we could all be putting these systems on our roofs and taking advantage of this energy source.”

Because of the cost of a solar panel or wind turbines and towers, many folks simply cannot or will not take advantage of these alternative energy supplies. That’s why Scheib said he hopes to see more power companies expanding into these fields.

“That’s really the best hope people have to ultimately see some power cost savings with solar power,” he said.

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