She wanted classic style, he wanted a net-zero energy house.

July 26, 2015
Jamie Clark, a Lexington energy consultant and contractor, renovated an older home in Chevy Chase to see if he could create a "net zero" energy house that looks like a typical house most people in Lexington want to own. So far, his project has been a success.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Jamie Clark, a Lexington energy consultant, renovated a circa 1958 house in Chevy Chase to see if he could create a “net zero” energy house that looks like a typical Lexington house. Photos by Tom Eblen

The solar panels that help power Jamie Clark's renovated house in Chevy Chase are hidden on the back roof, visible only from the very back of his back yard.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

The solar panels that help power Clark’s renovated house in Chevy Chase are hidden on the back roof, visible only from the very back of his back yard.


When Jamie and Haley Clark decided to move closer to town and Christ the King School, where their two young daughters are students, they each knew what kind of house they wanted. Trouble was, they didn’t want the same thing.

“She wanted a very Southern Living house,” Jamie Clark said, referring to the lifestyle magazine. “I wanted a net-zero house.”

Kentucky doesn’t have many net-zero houses, which use insulation, solar power and other technology to create as much energy as they use over the course of a year. And few of them look like the traditional homes that most Lexington buyers want.

Jamie Clark of Lexington is an energy-efficiency consultant and contractor.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Jamie Clark

Clark, who works as an energy-efficiency consultant and sells geothermal systems for Climate Control Heating & Air, took that as a challenge.

“Part of my goal was to prove that you could build net zero in Chevy Chase,” he said as he stood outside the house they bought two years ago and drastically renovated. “This would fit in in any neighborhood in Lexington.”

Clark searched Chevy Chase for a house for sale with the right orientation to the sun. He found a one-story ranch on Prather Road, built in 1958 with salvaged brick, and began renovations. Haley Clark sketched what she wanted, and architect Van Meter Pettit turned her ideas into construction drawings.

The Clarks rearranged the existing house and added about 1,000 square feet. The result was 2,978 square feet of living space above ground, plus 1,856 in the finished basement.

They put the master suite on the first floor and added a second story with Cape Cod dormers in the bedrooms of their daughters, Alexandra 8, and Catherine, 5. The girls’ double bathroom was designed with their teenage years in mind.

“I just turned 40 and I never plan to move again,” Clark said. “We were really mindful of growing in this house.”

The first step in creating a net-zero house is insulation; less energy used means less must be generated. The Clarks’ contractors installed Icynene spray-foam insulation and energy-efficient Anderson 400 Series low-E windows.

Clark drilled five, 200-foot wells and put in a geothermal system for heating, cooling and hot water. He installed a Climate Master Trilogy 45 heat pump and a highly insulated iGate water tank.

Clark said he spent about $900 on LED light bulbs, whose light quality is comparable to traditional incandescent bulbs. LEDs cost 10 times more than traditional bulbs but use 1⁄10 the electricity and last 10 times longer.

The only incandescent bulbs in the house are on chandeliers that look better with “pretty” bulbs. And there are motion sensors in the girls’ playroom to turn lights on and off automatically.

Jamie Clark installed a super-insulated water heater that works off the geothermal system.

Clark installed a super-insulated water heater that works off the geothermal system.

“It makes a lot more sense to just conserve than to put more solar panels on the roof,” Clark said. “Back in February, when we hit minus 18, I was using less power than the microwave at Super America to heat my house.”

Clark installed new Energy Star-rated appliances. The only natural gas the house uses is for the kitchen stove, and Clark said his monthly meter fee is much higher than the cost of the gas.

To create electricity, Clark installed 20 solar panels on the back roof. They are on the Kentucky Utilities grid, so the house draws power on cloudy days and adds power on sunny days.

Clark wired the system for 40 panels and plans to add more if he needs them. “I’m trying to talk my wife into a Tesla (electric car), and if we do that then I’ll put 20 more panels up there for charging it,” said Clark, who drives a Toyota Prius.

Like other energy systems in the house, the solar panels aren’t visible. “The only place you can see them is if you stand at the back fence line,” he said.

The Clarks moved in last Thanksgiving, so it will be at least a few more months before they know if their house is net zero. Early results are encouraging. The electric bill in December, when there were only six days with more than six hours of sunshine, was $153. But the bills were $11 in March, $30 in April and $9 in May.

Clark did some of the work himself, and he has good contacts in the industry. For an average consumer working with a contractor, Clark’s energy-efficiency measures would cost about $50,000 more than conventional systems, adding about $200 a month to a 30-year mortgage.

“They will more than pay for themselves,” he said, adding that federal tax credits for solar and geothermal systems would reduce costs further.

Over time, savings will be even greater. Electricity costs in Kentucky typically double every decade, but as utilities move away from high-pollution coal, rates could rise more sharply.

“It’s a dream home, that’s for sure,” Clark said of the project that has made him and his wife happy. “It’s everything we wanted.”

A state-of-the-art geo-thermal heating and cooling unit in the basement is a big reason Jamie Clark's renovated house in Chevy Chase is close to net-zero energy usage over the course of the year.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

A state-of-the-art geo-thermal heating and cooling unit in the basement is a big reason Clark’s renovated house in Chevy Chase is close to net-zero energy usage over the course of the year.

Jamie Clark's wife wanted a "Southern Living" house, and the energy consultant and contractor wanted a super energy-efficient house. So his renovated house in Chevy Chase has both high style and almost no net energy use over the course of the year, thanks to solar panels, geo-thermal heating and cooling and high-level insulation. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Clark’s wife wanted a “Southern Living” house, and the energy consultant and contractor wanted a super energy-efficient house. So his renovated house in Chevy Chase has both high style and almost no net energy use over the course of the year, thanks to solar panels, geo-thermal heating and cooling and high-level insulation.

Capitol Education Center shows progress can penetrate coal politics

February 17, 2013

A group of Louisville high school students in Frankfort to attend the I Love Mountains Day events toured the Capitol Education Center roof, which has solar panels, a wind turbine and a roof garden. Below, an interactive exhibit inside shows how much less power LED and compact florescent lights use than traditional incandescent bulbs. Photos by Tom Eblen


FRANKFORT — Each year, I notice more young people attending I Love Mountains Day. The rally against mountaintop-removal coal mining is organized by the citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and it has been a Valentine’s tradition since 2006.

The young people join hundreds of their elders from across Kentucky in marching to the Capitol steps to hear speakers that have included writer Wendell Berry and actress Ashley Judd. This year’s main speaker was writer Silas House.

Before the speeches, many marchers visit legislators and urge them to curb the coal industry’s worst environmental abuses, to no avail.

But this year, there was something new for the young people to see: the Capitol Education Center, which had its grand opening Feb. 8. The center was the brainchild of First Lady Jane Beshear, and it is located in a formerly vacant building beside the Capitol that once housed heating and cooling equipment.

Beshear thought the 60,000 students and teachers who visit the Capitol each year needed a place to rest and eat their lunch. Then, the former teacher realized that this recycled building could play a role in teaching students about one of the most important issues facing Kentucky’s future: environmental sustainability.

The building got a “green” renovation that included recycled materials and energy-efficient technology. Solar panels and a wind turbine that feed into the utility grid were installed on the roof. Rain water is recycled to water a roof garden that will provide food for the Governor’s mansion kitchen.

The Kentucky Environmental Education Council coordinated a dozen universities and state agencies in developing interactive multimedia exhibits for the building. They teach students about Kentucky history, civics and geography — but mainly about energy efficiency and alternative energy sources.

The project was funded with $1.1 million from the Finance Cabinet and a $250,000 donation from Duke Energy. General Electric donated appliances for a commercial kitchen that Beshear hopes to use for demonstrations of healthy cooking and eating. (For more information, go to:

In an interview, Beshear said these issues are “so important for the future. The more we as a state get into energy efficiency and alternative sources, the better off we’ll be.”

This education center is outstanding, and the First Lady’s vision for it is inspired. But it was hard to ignore the irony when I took a tour on I Love Mountains Day.

That event was created eight years ago to push for the so-called “stream saver” bill, which would ban coal companies from burying streams with mining debris. KFTC says the practice has obliterated more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian waterways.

But thanks to the coal industry’s enormous clout in Frankfort, the proposed legislation has gone nowhere. Most elected state officials proudly call themselves “friends of coal”. That friendship, which comes with lots of campaign cash, has always meant that public health, mine safety and environmental stewardship take a back seat to coal company profits.

Kentucky’s coal industry is in decline because of depleted reserves, cheap natural gas and the Environmental Protection Agency’s newfound willingness to do its job. But, like the National Rifle Association, the coal industry has always fought every attempt at common-sense regulation. Anyone who threatens the industry’s freedom to mine with impunity is branded as an enemy of coal.

There was an added emphasis for this year’s I Love Mountains Day: House Bill 170, which would require utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and put more emphasis on energy-efficiency programs.

In short, this bill, sponsored by Democrats Kelly Flood of Lexington and Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, would put into law some of the good ideas showcased at the new Capitol Education Center.

Change is hard, and progress can be slow. But I can’t help but be encouraged when I attend I Love Mountains Day or see something like the Capitol Education Center. Politicians will always be captive to power and money, I suppose, but it is good to see other Kentuckians working for a better future.

Few legislators have the courage to attend I Love Mountains Day, and the coal industry would go after any governor who dared show his face there.

But it is perhaps worth pointing out what Gov. Steve Beshear was doing shortly before the crowd arrived for I Love Mountains Day. He was in the Capitol rotunda with former Wildcat basketball star Derek Anderson, calling for legislation to create a statewide public smoking ban.

If you had told me 20 years ago that a Kentucky governor would do such a thing, I would have said you were crazy.


Habitat needs volunteer builders for Morgan, Menifee reconstruction

January 29, 2013

Greg Dike, right, executive director of the Morehead Area Habitat for Humanity group, helps build an interior wall for a house near Morehead with a group of volunteers from Lexington on Jan. 19.  Photos by Tom Eblen


MOREHEAD — When Greg Dike became the director — and only employee — of Habitat for Humanity’s Rowan County unit more than two years ago, he thought he knew the mission. Then that mission got a whole lot bigger.

A cluster of tornados tore through Eastern Kentucky last March 2, killing 22 people. Eight died in neighboring Morgan and Menifee counties and dozens more were left homeless.

“When the tornadoes came, we decided to expand our service area,” said Dike, 61, whose previous careers included electrical engineer, United Methodist minister and emergency room nurse.

Dike figured that Habitat could provide valuable help in storm recovery for a couple of reasons. Habitat, an ecumenical Christian ministry, builds houses that low-income working people can afford to buy, in part through their own labors. Plus, the three-county Morehead Area unit of Habitat specializes in super energy-efficient housing.

Morehead Area Habitat’s most common house has 1,100 square feet of living space on one floor and costs about $45,000 to build. Through smart design and lots of insulation — including a foundation insulated below the frost line — each house has an average heating and cooling cost of only about $12 a month. A poorly insulated house or mobile home often has a monthly utility bill of $200 or more.

So far, in addition to its regular work in Rowan County, Habitat has built one house each in Morgan and Menifee counties for storm victims, Dike said. Six more are under construction in Morgan and two more in Menifee, with seven additional houses planned in those counties.

Judge Executives Tim Conley in Morgan County and James Trimble in Menifee County have been very supportive, and have helped Habitat identify building sites.

“They see Habitat as a way to get people into quality housing,” Dike said.

Because some people who lost their homes in the storms were elderly, disabled or otherwise unable to take on even a small mortgage, as typical Habitat clients do, the Kentucky Housing Corp. and other organizations and foundations have provided several hundred thousand dollars in grants to build homes. The state Habitat organization also has been very helpful, Dike said.

Materials for each house cost about $35,000, so the total price is kept low largely through volunteer labor. While Habitat is always happy to receive cash donations, Dike said, his biggest need is regular construction volunteers.

Dike is working with Diane James of Lexington, a longtime Habitat volunteer and former construction manager, to recruit and organize groups of regular volunteers from Central Kentucky, which is only an hour or two away by car.

The ideal volunteers are men or women who can gather several friends together and commit to one or two work days a month, ideally on the same house so they can become familiar with it.

“I think there are a lot of people out there with skills,” Dike said. “We’re not looking for award-winning carpenters; just people with some skills and common sense.”

Dike and James hopes to hear from churches, businesses or just groups of friends who think they could commit to a series of work days over the next few months. Those interested in volunteering can email James at or call Dike at (606) 776-0022.

“It’s an easy trip, and we get a lot of work done in a day,” James said. “Most people have really enjoyed it.”

That’s certainly what I found earlier this month, when I accompanied James, Dike and a group of volunteers from several Lexington Disciples of Christ churches who were framing interior walls on a Habitat house near Morehead.

“I just love doing it,” said Bettye Burns, a retiree who volunteered through her church for a women-only Habitat build in the early 1990s and has been doing it ever since.

“It’s fun, and I’ve learned so much,” Burns said. “I credit Diane for me not getting empty-nest syndrome when my kids grew up. I was so busy helping her build houses, I didn’t have time for that.”

Steve Seithers, who began volunteering through his church in 1992, said he enjoys the fellowship and sense of accomplishment he gets from Habitat work. “Plus, it helps make a difference in people’s lives,” Seithers said. “This is something I can do, so I’m doing it.”

Click on each photo to enlarge and read caption:

West Liberty looks to Kansas town for model of rebuilding ‘green’

August 27, 2012

Looking from the south end of Greensburg, Kan., the view has changed since an EF-5 tornado destroyed the town on May 4, 2007. Greensburg now claims to have the most Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified buildings per capita in the world. Photos by Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle

WEST LIBERTY — Kiowa County, Kan., where Daniel Wallach lives, is very different from Morgan County, Ky. For one thing, it is flat and dry, rather than hilly and green.

But when Wallach came here Tuesday, he saw much that made him feel at home: a conservative, tight-knit community; a town far from a major population center that has struggled economically for years; and people determined against all odds to rebuild after a monster tornado destroyed their beloved home.

The West Liberty Chamber of Commerce brought Wallach to town because he was a key player in the rebirth of Greensburg, Kan., where an EF-5 tornado leveled 95 percent of the town and killed 11 people on May 4, 2007.

Morgan County leaders wanted to hear about Greensburg’s experience and see if some of its strategies could work here, where an EF-3 tornado March 2 devastated much of West Liberty and several rural communities, killing six people.

A week after Greensburg’s tornado, Wallach submitted a paper to his town’s leaders with an intriguing vision: rebuild Greensburg as a cutting-edge, energy-efficient town that not only would save money but attract tourists and worldwide media attention. It would be a living model of a sustainable small town of the future.

Greensburg still struggles, but its “green” strategy has paid off in spades. Tourists, civic leaders and journalists come to Greensburg from around the world to see 13 public buildings and many homes and businesses that were rebuilt with the latest energy-efficient designs and technology.

Greensburg residents who chose to rebuild “green” have seen huge reductions in their utility bills, Wallach said. Annual energy costs for the town’s public buildings are about $200,000 less than they would have been with conventional construction, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“If we had not pursued this strategy,” Wallach said, “I don’t think the town would still be there.”

Wallach heads Greensburg GreenTown, a non-profit that promotes the vision to other communities devastated by disaster. The group is currently assisting Joplin, Mo., where an EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011, killed 158 people and left a huge path of destruction.

A week after tornadoes struck Kentucky in March, I wrote a column offering advice from leaders in other disaster-damaged towns across the country. Among them was former Mayor John Janssen of Greensburg, whose experience seemed to offer a good model for West Liberty. Several people in West Liberty thought so, too.

After reading that column, they said, they began looking at Greensburg. They asked Bobby Clark of Lexington-based Midwest Clean Energy Enterprises, a consultant to one of West Liberty’s reconstruction planning groups, to arrange for Wallach to meet with local officials and speak at a public meeting Tuesday that more than 50 people attended.

As I rode to West Liberty with Wallach, Clark and his business partner, Jason Delambre, Wallach explained that Greensburg’s energy- efficient reconstruction strategy faced some opposition at first in the conservative town, where oil and gas exploration is a big part of the economy.

“We had to explain that this was not about tree-hugging, this was about our town’s viability and survival,” he said. “We stayed away from any language that had become politicized.”

Wallach and others who started Greensburg GreenTown promoted the idea as common-sense economics: lower energy costs for homes, businesses and taxpayer-supported government buildings.

But they also talked about faith-based values, such as caring for God’s creation. And they said that if Greensburg could become an international example for other towns, outsiders would have a reason to visit and invest in the community.

Eventually, Wallach said, most of the skeptics got it. Some green-oriented businesses have announced plans to locate plants there, and existing businesses have found new niches. For example, he said, the rebuilt John Deere dealership now has a good side business selling wind turbines throughout Kansas.

Greensburg officials didn’t require anyone to rebuild with energy-efficient design or technology, but it helped the majority who did find expertise and incentives. The few who didn’t now envy their neighbors’ much smaller utility bills, he said.

During our ride to West Liberty, Wallach said he thought the idea of sustainable reconstruction might also get some pushback in West Liberty, a conservative town on the edge of the coalfields. But leaders there were way ahead of him.

Hank Allen, president of Commercial Bank and the West Liberty Chamber of Commerce, said he plans to rebuild his bank using super energy-efficient design and materials as soon as he settles with his insurance company.

Allen also is considering a brilliant idea: adding incubator space onto his Main Street bank building to help small businesses get back on their feet. One of the biggest problems West Liberty faces, he said, is that reconstruction will mean higher rents for businesses that were struggling to stay afloat before the tornado.

“In my mind, we can’t recover until Main Street recovers,” Allen told Wallach. “I’m very optimistic because I know there’s such a desire for the town to come back. I think this is the first step, having you here.”

Allen and several other Morgan County leaders said they were impressed by Greensburg’s example and are organizing a trip there this fall.

Wallach said he sees no reason West Liberty can’t do what Greensburg did — and more — because Morgan County is in a less-remote location and has more natural resources than his area of Kansas.

“All of the elements seem to be here, and they seem really enthused by that,” Wallach said of Morgan County and its leaders. “What Greensburg offers is an example of hope. It’s remarkable what happens when people see for themselves what’s possible.”

Several Morgan County groups are looking at rebuilding strategies with help from experts at Morehead State University and the University of Kentucky. One proposed strategy is called B.E.G.I.N. Again!, the acronym standing for Building, Entrepreneurial, Green, Innovative, Networked-enterprises.

In addition to encouraging energy-efficient reconstruction, the strategy envisions West Liberty using its natural potential for geothermal energy to build a shared system that downtown businesses could tap into.

The plan also offers several ideas for better positioning West Liberty, a former tobacco farming community, in the 21st-century economy. One is capitalizing on nearby Cave Run Lake, the Red River Gorge and hunting and fishing assets to make West Liberty a tourist hub for eco-tourism and outdoor recreation. That would include developing trails and other attractions along the city’s lovely Licking River frontage.

Other ideas include developing a 21st-century model for rural health care using West Liberty’s recently restored hospital; fostering local entrepreneurship; putting a free wireless Internet system downtown, where cellphone coverage is spotty; and trying to develop a world-class data recovery system that could be marketed to companies elsewhere.

Wallach, a Colorado native, thought adventure tourism was an especially good idea. He kept remarking on Morgan County’s natural beauty and its potential for attracting outdoor enthusiasts and sportsmen.

State Rep. John Will Stacy said he was impressed by his meeting with Wallach and many of the ideas it sparked. Judge-Executive Tim Conley, who talked with Wallach on Wednesday, was similarly enthusiastic, Clark said.

Meetings are planned this week among West Liberty’s various reconstruction groups to refine ideas and begin setting priorities, Clark said.

As horrible as disasters are, they can provide a clean slate for renewal if leaders seize the opportunity. Wallach stressed that the best hope for small towns such as West Liberty is to create authentic, innovative visions for economic development that will generate excitement and investment from locals and outsiders.

“Everybody loves a comeback story,” he said. “The more innovative you are with the project, the more outside help you’re going to get.”

UK building program should go green, save green

March 24, 2012

UK President Eli Capilouto at Richardsville Elementary School in Warren County last month. Photo by Joe Imel/Bowling Green Daily News


When I interviewed Eli Capilouto recently about his first eight months as president of the University of Kentucky, he described a visit to an elementary school in Bowling Green as “my best day in Kentucky.”

The Alabama native went to Richardsville Elementary after receiving a handwritten invitation from second-grader Emma McGuffey. Capilouto said he was impressed by the students and teachers, and by the building where they learn.

That building, which opened in August 2010, was the nation’s first school designed to generate more energy than it uses. Thanks to innovative design and materials, it requires 75 percent less energy than a typical school.

Power consumption also is kept down by geothermal heating and cooling, plus elimination of power-hungry appliances such as deep fryers in the cafeteria kitchen. (That change prompted dieticians to develop healthier school lunches.)

The overall construction cost was about the same as a typical school, except for the addition of solar panels that generate power for the school and local utility grid.

Capilouto said the students gave him a tour of the building and proudly explained the science behind it. “I came back on a high after that visit,” he said. “I’ve never seen a building teach so effectively.”

His ambitious plans for UK include a lot of construction. He wants to renovate or replace many aging academic buildings, renovate 6,000 beds of dormitory space and add 3,000 more beds.

UK has a contract with Memphis-based Education Realty Trust to build and operate a 600-bed dorm. The deal is planned as the first step toward privatizing all student housing as a way to raise construction capital.

I asked Capilouto whether Richardsville Elementary had inspired him to attempt similar energy-efficiency with UK’s new buildings. “We have the same architect,” he replied, referring to the Lexington firm Sherman Carter Barnhart, which is designing the new dormitory.

The dorm will have geothermal systems and will meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. But initial plans indicate much more could be done to reduce energy consumption and long-term operating costs.

If Capilouto wants to embrace what he saw at Richardsville, much more must be done with this and future buildings. And that process must start soon, before UK negotiates terms of its long-term relationship with Education Realty Trust.

Thanks to projects such as Richardsville Elementary, Kentucky has become the national leader in energy-efficient school construction. Other examples have been built in Warren, Fayette and Kenton counties, and many more are planned.

Berea College has made strides in this area. UK has made a start with the new Davis Marksbury Building. There is plenty of Kentucky expertise on which to draw, including some on UK’s campus.

But people who have been involved with energy-efficient school projects say it is not a process to be entered into lightly. It requires new ways of thinking at each step — from how a building is planned, designed and financed to how it is managed and used after completion.

Highly energy-efficient buildings cost a little more on the front end, although that money is recovered quickly through lower operating costs. Still, it’s a different mind-set.

“There must be a change in culture at all levels,” said architect Mark Ryles, who was a key player in energy-efficient school construction as facilities director for the Kentucky Department of Education. “It will take real leadership and collaboration to make it happen.”

Ryles said the most successful projects have been built in counties where the school board and superintendents were committed to the process and put students’ needs first. The key is to figure out a vision and goals for construction, then shape the business model to accomplish them.

As Capilouto saw at Richardsville, energy efficiency is about much more than cost savings. “The educational benefit is fabulous,” Ryles said. “We now have third-graders going around talking about geothermal.”

If Capilouto and the Board of Trustees were to decide to rebuild UK’s campus as the “greenest” in the nation, it would make a bold statement, create a unique learning laboratory and save a lot of green for Kentucky taxpayers.

It also could make UK more attractive to Emma McGuffey and her fellow college students of the future. They will expect their university’s campus to be at least as advanced as what they had in elementary school.

Thinking solar for your home? Lots of options

May 16, 2011

I heard from readers when I wrote about the pioneering solar home that Lexington architect Richard Levine built for himself in the 1970s and recently upgraded with new technology.

I heard from more readers when I wrote about Warren County’s new “net-zero” school, designed to generate as much power as it uses.

Many readers wanted to know this: How could they use solar power and innovative design to help the planet and lower their utility bills?

As solar technology gets better and cheaper, it is becoming a viable alternative for more Kentucky homeowners, said Andy McDonald, director of the Kentucky Solar Partnership, an advocacy organization in Frankfort. Options range from solar-powered water heaters to super-insulated “passive” homes.

Because Kentucky isn’t sunny year-around, McDonald said, “Many people believe that solar is not viable here, but that isn’t true. Germany leads the world in solar energy, and Kentucky has better solar resources than Germany does.”

The difference, McDonald said, is government policy and incentives. The United States lags many countries in policies promoting renewable energy, and Kentucky lags many states in incentives. But help is out there.

Since 2004, Kentucky homeowners have been able to hook solar generators into their local utility, getting credit for power they feed into the grid to offset power they draw at night and on cloudy days. It is possible for homeowners to break even – and even earn a profit if their utility’s power comes from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The federal government since 2005 has offered tax incentives for installing solar and other renewable energy systems. The state also offers some incentives, and the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development has flexible loans for some systems installed in Eastern Kentucky.

The most popular systems are solar water heaters, like the one Dave Kollar had installed in his Madison County home two years ago. The water heater is powered by two small solar panels on his roof that charge batteries. When the sun isn’t shining, the water heater can run on regular current. Solar water heaters in Kentucky typically produce about 70 percent of a home’s hot water over the course of a year.

Kollar said the system cost him about $5,000, after incentives. With what he is saving so far, he estimates it will pay for itself within 12 years. “For me, though, that’s just part of the equation,” said Kollar, chief engineer for Fox 56 television.

“I don’t know that we’re saving the planet, but fossil fuel is a finite resource and it seems silly to waste it,” said Kollar, who also supplements his home’s furnace with a wood stove. “Besides, I didn’t want to go through another ice storm without hot water and heat.”

For homeowners wanting to do more than heat water, there is one key thing to understand: Success is not so much about how much power your solar system can produce; it is about how energy-efficient you can make your home so it uses as little power of any kind as possible.

The first step toward lower utility bills is weatherizing an existing home or designing a new home to minimize energy loss and take advantage of natural sunlight.

Basic design principles include having a home’s long axis facing south, with windows that let in winter sunshine but are shaded against summer heat. Likewise, minimize windows on a home’s west side, which gets a lot summer sun, and the north side, which catches winter winds, McDonald said.

While Kentucky may be behind other states in solar incentives, it is ahead of most when it comes to green building design. Levine, who last year received a “pioneer” award from the American Solar Energy Society, runs an architecture practice that is bringing European “passive” home design to Kentucky.

So-called passive homes are so heavily insulated that little energy is lost. They use only about 10 percent of the energy needed to heat and cool a well-built conventional home. Because these houses are so air tight, they are equipped with special ventilators that bring fresh air in from the outside with minimal heat and cooling loss.

Levine’s firm, CSC Design Studio, is designing five passive “net-zero” homes for Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. intended for sale to middle-income people. The first is under construction near Williamsburg.

CSC also recently designed a net-zero home for a client who will begin construction in July along the Kentucky River, said Michael Hughes, an architect who works with Levine. Power needed for these passive homes will come from solar panels on the roof.

Passive homes can cost as much as 25 percent more to build than conventional homes, but Hughes thinks prices will fall as more builders learn how to build them and domestic companies step in to compete with European manufacturers of super-insulated doors and windows. “I think it’s the future of homebuilding,” Hughes said.

Solar Resources

  • The first step to lower utility bills isn’t solar technology – it is making your home more energy efficient. A good place to get more information about that the Kentucky Housing Corp.’s Web site:
  • The Kentucky Solar Partnership’s Web site is a good place to find information about solar home technology, from a list of contractors to available incentives. The organization is planning a training session in August for contractors interested in learning how to install solar systems.
  • Additional information about incentives for energy efficiency and solar technology can be found at: and
  • The Rural Energy for America program offers grants to some farms and rural businesses for installing renewable energy systems:
  • Information about solar and other renewable energy options:
  • Several magazines offer resources, including Home Power at, and Solar Today at
  • CSC Design Studio in Lexington designs custom passive and solar homes:

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

A solar pioneer takes his home to the next level

January 4, 2010

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.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo: