Maryland couple basks in savings from a solar system

MARYLAND - Like many in the region, Al Schnoebelen has argued with his utility provider about higher than expected bills before.

Turns out Delmarva Power charged him $11 a month for a few months last year after a carpenter putting in bookshelves used more electricity at the Eastern Shore bungalow where Schnoebelen normally pays anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars a month.

Delmarva kept charging him $11 a month before the mistake in his monthly budget billing was realized and the company gave him credits.

Schnoebelen keeps his bills so low because he has spent the last 20 years making his home as energy efficient as possible. He's got triple-pane windows, 120-foot-tall poplars and oaks above his home, which was architecturally designed home to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

"If I tell someone, I pay this for utility bills, they say, 'No you don't,'" said Schnoebelen, 73. "If you don't pay attention, it'll get too warm in here.


Nineteen years ago, he and his wife Nancy installed six solar panels in the yard outside their 2,000 square-foot, two-bedroom home.

That's why their utility bills only ran 35 cents a month for years until they replaced a propane freezer with an electric one last year. The only other electric appliance they have is a hot water heater. They use a wood-burning stove in the winter and don't have cable TV or Internet access.

Before building their home, they constructed a solar-heated cabin in 1980 on 25 acres of land about 30 miles from the Bay Bridge. Until he retired six years ago, Schnoebelen built catamarans in Annapolis.

After the cabin proved its worth over the next 10 years, the Schnoebelens moved into their bungalow.

They lived off the grid, according to Schnoebelen, who calls himself the original hippie, until March 2007 when their backup generator died. The entire time, they never paid utilities.

The 73-year-old says his 64-year-old wife, who had an organic garden for a long time until her arthritis flared up, was the environmentalist among the two.

"For me, it was really the pressure of money," he said.

He spent $4,200 on the solar system, shipped from a California company with three batteries and transformers to convert the sun's power so the Schnoebelens could use the sun's energy. The same system would now cost between $8,000 and $40,000, but Maryland and D.C. both offer solar subsidies to help with the cost.

Forty Delmarva Power customers — out of 200,000 — use alternative energy systems.

"He's way ahead of the game," Delmarva spokesman Matt Likovich said of Schnoebelen. "The thing with environmentalism that's unfortunate is that there are price tags associated with it."

But the money the Schnoebelens have saved on utilities means they now live the good life, collecting wines, going antique shopping and taking vacations.


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