Lehigh University
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Going Solar

Matthias Falk's solar panel array is freestanding.

Two faculty members are joining the slowly growing ranks of those who have taken the plunge to reduce their carbon footprints as much as possible.

In 2007, Matthias Falk, an associate professor of biological sciences, and his wife, Jutta Marzillier, saw that even when their house stood vacant for a month while they were visiting family in Germany, it devoured a surprising amount of electricity. Falk noticed that more households in Germany, his native country, are switching to non-fossil fuel energy sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal.

Falk and Marzillier, an adjunct professor of biological sciences, decided to try making changes of their own. Over five years, they converted their house into a model of energy efficiency, shrinking their energy consumption by complementing a solar array with a host of other energy-saving solutions .

“Everything humans do has an impact. One has to try one’s best to minimize that impact,” he said.

Falk’s carefully maintained records show that his household used 19,845 KWh of electricity in 2007. The installation of energy-saving tools--including a new tankless water heater, highly efficient heating system, fridge, gas cook top and efficient light bulbs--resulted in a one-third drop in electricity usage.

After installing a freestanding, 24-panel photovoltaic solar array on a sunny patch of their property in January 2011, the sun fed their energy needs with more than 7,000 kWh/year, and the couple had to purchase just 2,750 KWh of electricity from the grid. Throughout the process, the family’s total gas usage did not increase much.

Because the photovoltaic panels are on the ground instead of on his roof, Falk enjoys easy access to them. He can brush snow off in the winter and remove leaves in the fall. He can even shift the angle as the seasons change, to better catch the rays.

Despite gathering less sunshine during December and January, the solar array contributes to roughly a third of the Falks’ total energy needs. Altogether, they are saving about $2,000 a year since they made the changes. The array even generates extra energy that the family sells back into the grid.

The array cost $40,000, but a combination of state and federal grants and incentives to go green have cut that cost roughly in half. The $20,000 cost of the solar panels alone will pay for themselves in about 20 years, Falk estimates.

When he counts the additional changes, including the switch to a dual system heater, a system that moves selectively between natural gas and electricity, energy star-rated appliances, and other measures such as CFL bulbs and better home insulation, Falk estimates that his investment will pay off in 10 years.

But the Falks didn’t do it for the money. 

“The main motivation for us was that we wanted to reduce our carbon footprint,” Falk said.

The Falk-Marzilliers continue to look for creative ways to do that, including using a solar oven in their backyard, in which they enjoy baking cakes, even during the winter. 

Though it may not be feasible for everyone to switch to alternative forms of energy, Falk believes it’s important to be aware of how much energy we use each day, and then try to reduce it.

“Most people don’t know how much they’re really using until they look into it,” he said.

Story by Manasee Wagh

Posted on Tuesday, November 19, 2013

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