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Home, Garden, and Car Care Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 2, 2008

On Altamont Road, one woman’s quest for energy independence
Renée Van Kuren captures and harnesses the power of the sun

By Philippa Stasiuk

Anyone going on the Green Buildings Open House Tour this Saturday, Oct. 4, should have no trouble finding Renée Van Kuren’s property: It’s the house on Altamont Road where “Honk for Peace” is painted across the barn.  That, along with the smattering of bumper stickers on her Honda (such as “When Bush came into office the price of gas was $1.46”), evidences her activism.

Yet Van Kuren, a massage therapist, seems somewhat surprised that it was her activism that led to her home being showcased for its alternative energy.  Until three years ago, writing letters and signing petitions was her usual form of protest.  Indeed, when she thinks of activism, she thinks of her sons’ generation.

“Kids these days are more energy and environmentally conscious and more political than I ever thought of being,” she said. 

Hers is also a house that at first glance doesn’t seem particularly green.  Although the electric-blue trimmed windows in the kitchen are double paned, only about half of the rest of the windows are.  Her fridge hums the tune of an older model straining to keep its contents chilled.

Small by today’s “McMansion” standards, her home bustles with the activities of a mother and not so much of a political activist. Milk for yogurt simmers on the stove and canning jars clutter the countertops. What little room is left over around the kitchen table is taken up by Sparky, her ungainly black and white dog. 

Van Kuren can recall exactly when her protests took a more active turn, which led her to embrace alternative energy: “When the Public Service Commission agreed to sell Niagara Mohawk to National Greed, as I like to call them, they were allowed to raise delivery rates twice in the first six months.” 

Van Kuren resolved to boycott National Grid’s electricity and she began searching for alternative energy sources at Google.com. She found the website for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and through NYSERDA, a local solar energy installer, Renewable Power Systems or RPS. 

An RPS rep then came to Van Kuren’s house to see if solar energy was viable there.  After walking around her property, he gave her a bleak diagnosis: Her home site was one of the worst he had ever seen for capturing the sun’s energy. Not only did the roof on Van Kuren’s house point east and west instead of south, but dense tree coverage made capturing sufficient sunlight impossible.

“I asked him what if I cut the trees down but he wasn’t much interested,” she recalled. The project was stalled before it had even begun.

“Good to go”

One year later, Van Kuren called RPS again.  In 12 months, she and her oldest son, Joshua, had cleared her three-acre property of 120 trees.  She wanted another assessment.  “I told him to bring his tools and asked, ‘Am I good to go now?’” 

The answer was a resounding yes and the assessor calculated the exact location of due south so that Van Kuren could properly orient the barn that would hold the solar panels.  Since she already had the wood from clearing her property, she hired a portable sawmill from Gallupville and used her own lumber to build the barn. 

Building the barn took all of 2007, but after that things started to move quickly.  RPS figured out how much energy she would need based on averages of her last two years of electric use.  Then, once she was pre-approved by NYSERDA, she obtained a personal loan from the bank.  The actual panel installation took only three days and, after a bit more persistence, she persuaded National Grid to come out and install the specialized meters. Van Kuren describes getting the solar panels installed as her “first adult long-term goal and I did it!”

Now, instead of Van Kuren buying electricity from National Grid, the company is buying electricity from her. Through the spring and summer, the best seasons for capturing sunlight, her panels produce more electricity than she actually needs so the extra goes directly into National Grid’s system. Van Kuren’s meter keeps track of what she’s producing and at year’s end she will be credited for any extra electricity that her panels supplied.  She admits that watching her meter go backwards is incredibly satisfying.

Switching for independence, not money

It is going to take Van Kuren a long time to actually get energy for free.  Her electric bills prior to switching to solar were about $100 a month but she now has a $350 monthly payment.  Through incentives, the state paid for about $15,000 of her solar switch but her portion still amounts to about $21,000, paid through a five-year loan.

Van Kuren is quick to point out that her switch to solar wasn’t financially motivated.  “People always want to know about the money. I went into it for the independence. For me, money didn’t enter in so much as can I afford these payments now and then it’s mine.” 

She still hasn’t decided yet what to do with her new barn but she thinks it would be great for classes.  So far, its primary use has been to host local summer music festivals but now that summer is over, it’s a storage place for artwork and furniture. 

Even though Van Kuren’s energy is now “home grown,” she is still always looking for ways to use less of it.  She has stopped using her clothes dryer completely, which she says works especially well in the winter when hanging the damp clothes to dry replaces the moisture that her fireplace takes out of the air. She also heats her house entirely with wood now and has replaced all her lights with fluorescent bulbs.  Even her well pump uses less energy since she changed to a more efficient submersible model.

As for being included in this year’s Green Buildings open house, Van Kuren’s motives are clear. “I hope to encourage other people because everyone has to do something,” she said. “The cost of energy will only continue to go up and the more you do for yourself, the more you’ll save money.” 

Van Kuren is already thinking about what she plans to do next. “When I finish paying for this,” she said, “I’m going to get an electric car that I can plug in.”


For more information on the Green Buildings open house, go to www.nesesa.org/buildings/openhouse. Van Kuren’s home, along with 24 other buildings in the Capital District will be showcased from 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Oct. 4.  The mostly self-guided tours will be held in all six New England States plus New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

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