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    Visionary Castro Homeowner Launched a Power Revolution

    An estimated 1.5 million Californians were impacted by the PG&E blackouts earlier this month—just the latest problem tied to our reliance on unsustainable energy systems. Solar panels, conversely, utilize the single most sustainable resource on Earth: sunlight. Arguably one of the most important homes in the history of solar technologies in America is right here in the Castro at 453 Liberty Street.

    The beautiful Neo Art Deco treasure—a short distance away from Tom & Jerry’s famed “Christmas Tree House”—was the dream home of former owner Don Stroh. An out and proud member of our community, Stroh loves to entertain his many friends. The home’s location was therefore perfect for him at the time, given that it sits on a hill overlooking the Castro, offering one of the gayest, greatest views of the city. It also has sweeping views of downtown San Francisco and the bay.

    But it is the home’s technical details that make it particularly noteworthy. 453 Liberty was outfitted with the first permitted solar system in San Francisco, and one of the first of its kind in the world. It also was one of the first homes to have solar water and solar air-heating systems. Stroh’s enabler throughout all of this work was Greg Kennedy of Occidental Power, the first solar electric company to be established in San Francisco (1989). The two men first met in 1994, when Stroh shared his vision.

    Lyle Abrahamson, the project manager from Occidental Power at the time, shared that work on the home commenced the following year with off-site creation of the solar water heating system. During this effort, there were many discussions concerning the envisioned photovoltaic power system. Stroh gave a green light to this key part of the project in July of 1996, with everything finished by the end of that year.

    Kennedy explained the setup to the San Francisco Bay Times: “The stand-alone, utility-backed solar electric and battery system is built in tandem with a solar water heating system and a solar air to air system. The high-end artistic home of original owner Don Stroh is incredibly unique and meticulously built.”

    He added, “The house has huge daylight harvesting components (skylights), special ‘air to air’ solar collectors from Maine with in line German fans in the walls to collect the hot air and pump it into the house. The solar electric system equipped with batteries is connected to special colored plugs in each of the rooms, charged at all times. There are special stainless steel tanks and Heliodyne thermal panels heating the water in the home. Aside from its record timing, the system is distinctive—featuring air, water, and electrical alternative methods.”

    When Occidental Power first contacted the San Francisco Building Department about code compliance for the home, then Senior Electrical Inspector Gerald McDermott was intrigued. He and his team had never before seen a solar electric system, so they all traveled to the property and marveled at its many planned innovations. Occidental Power carefully worked with McDermott and his colleagues to ensure approval upon full installation.

    Since the contractor had to solve many challenges in the course of the work, the home’s solar system became a model for others throughout the city and beyond. While we still have a long way to go before the majority of homes in the U.S. could go solar, 453 Liberty sparked a power revolution that continues to this day.

    San Francisco and Occidental’s importance in the solar history books doesn’t end there. Kennedy said, “Occidental’s second system in San Francisco at 25 Fair Oaks followed suit in advancing sustainable energy by employing the first net metering solar energy system in the city, possibly the first in the U.S.”

    Reliable, clean energy can be a lifesaver. Consider those who rely on medical equipment, such as oxygen concentrators and dialysis machines. Their lives were threatened during the recent blackouts. Then there is the longer-term threat that we all face, resulting from dependence on fossil fuels and the pollution as well as climate change that they cause.

    We are grateful for the groundbreaking work of Stroh and Occidental Power, and hope that it continues to inspire homeowners worldwide to go solar. Although there are some cons (for example, not all roofs are suitable for solar and there is the initial investment), the pros of solar are overwhelming. Here are just a few:

    • It reduces your carbon footprint. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average house emits approximately 20 metric tons of carbon pollution each year. A solar system can reduce that by at least 3–4 tons per year.
    • Your electricity bill will be reduced.
    • You will be safeguarded in large part against future blackouts.
    • Solar eliminates many concerns over the rising cost of power. According to the Energy Information Administration, utility residential electricity prices have slowly risen at a steady rate over the last decade.
    • Last but not least, solar systems can greatly improve the value of a home, usually increasing its resale value. This could allow you to recoup the cost of installing the system.

    For more information:

    Occidental Power

    Renewable Energy at EPA

    Go Solar California


    Cliff’s Variety Blackout Survival Kit & Tips

    There are numerous lists touting the necessities for the next blackout, but at Cliff’s Variety they think a little differently. Batteries, flashlights, coolers … this is earthquake country, so we all should already have those basics in the house. And if not, shame on you!

    Here are suggested additions to your kit from Cliff’s, as well as tips on how to survive and even thrive during the next blackout.

    Number One – Blackouts are not always at night, so why not take advantage of that off-grid time by tackling a project. Having a couple of gallons of paint on the ready is a good way to plan for that not-so planned-for day off work.

    Number Two – Smart homes are not your friend during a blackout. Keeping a crowbar in the car or somewhere accessible is a good idea for blackouts and earthquakes, and may be the only way past your now not-so-smart lock.

    Number Three – Down time is craft time. Keep yourself and the kids busy with arts & crafts projects. Having some general supplies or craft kits in the house is always a good idea, be it a blackout or a family flu week.

    Number Four – Dogs poop rain or shine, and even during a blackout. If you have a dog, you should always have poop bags on hand.

    Number Five – Board games, or should it be bored games. Every house should have at least one good board game. They’re great for the impromptu get together, icebreaker, and yes … even a blackout.

    Number Six – Bike lights. Light that thing up like it’s Christmas! Blackout or not, you need to stay safe and visible as the days get shorter and the nights get longer.

    Number Seven – Cook like a fiend! That food defrosting in your fridge is not going to waste if your kitchen is ready for an all-day cook-a-thon. Don’t worry if you get carried away and can’t eat it all. There are plenty of people out there that are in need of a good meal.

    Number Eight – Embrace the spooky. Have a seance and conjure up the spirit of Carl Sagan or one of the many other long past celebrities.

    Cliff’s Variety is at 479 Castro Street.