83 year-old with plenty of energy

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83-Year-Old With Plenty Of Energy

Preparation began with '70s power crisis

Chip Johnson

Tuesday, April 10, 2001, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2001/04/10/MNE217012.DTL&type=news

The energy crisis plaguing California consumers is nothing more than a fading image in Robert Hansen's rear-view mirror. He's 83 years old, but he's got no shortage of juice, thanks to a very large solar array atop his El Cerrito home.

And he hasn't a worry about getting gouged by PG&E or being a victim of the next rolling blackout. Indeed, he'll probably be smiling from a lounge chair next to his swimming pool, well-heated, of course.

Hansen, a retired Army colonel, has relied on his own energy systems for nearly 30 years, first at his Kensington home and now at his current residence, where he's lived since 1998. As far back as the 1970s, when gasoline shortages hit the nation, Hansen saw the writing on the wall.

"I knew we were going to be in trouble," he said. "You could see that the public was too stupid, and yes, that's the right word, because they recognized that they wanted things yet denied themselves things by being conservationists," he said.

For Hansen, the buzzword is self-sufficiency. "Oil fire, coal or nuclear, they wouldn't allow any new system to be built and now they're blaming it on the power companies and the PUC when it's the people themselves," he said.

The solar energy system in Hansen's Kensington home came with big government incentives for alternate energy sources in the 1970s, and paid for itself in less than three years, he said. He expects the state to soon provide similar incentives to deal with the current problems. Hansen didn't wait around to be counted among the casualties of a crisis he is convinced will get worse before it turns a corner.

Using state-of-the-art photovoltaic cells and two banks of batteries, Hansen has built an $80,000 generation system that produces as much as 8.6 kilowatts of juice every hour to supply his every need in his El Cerrito home. The solar-energy collecting cells cover 3,500 square feet of rooftop space and generate up to 48 volts of direct current, which is converted to 110 and 120 volts of alternating current, which is the kind of electricity used in the home.

He was able to offset nearly $26,000 of the construction costs through a grant from the state Public Utilities Commission, which will subsidize wind, turbine and photovoltaic home projects at a rate of as much as $3 for each watt of power generated by an independent system. Hansen's array cranks out far more than a typical home solar system, which produces just under half the electricity used in the average household each month.

His rig can produce up to 205 kilowatts every 24 hours -- about 4.5 more than the average solar system -- and while PG&E won't buy his excess juice, he's planning on receiving credits for future usage. "Everybody laughs and says Hansen is lucky,' " said Hansen, who led the Golden Gate Park Band for 27 years. "That's not luck, that's foresight."

There is one unequivocal perk in all of this, especially as the Northern California utility company goes through the throes of bankruptcy, leaving the future power rates in the hands of a court judge. Hansen will probably never have to pay another power bill, a prospect that inspires him to laugh out loud because a huge rate increase isn't going to affect him.

So far, he's been unable to reach anyone at the utility to receive a two- way "e-meter," a device that keeps a running count on power produced and used, but it's not for a lack of trying.

In January, PG&E analyst Harold Hirsch told The Chronicle that the utility company had about 170 customers enrolled in the program to use and generate power. Because participation was so small, paying to track their power production and register it with the state power exchange would be not be worth the cost, he said.

Nonetheless, if the troubled utility extends an offer to consumers, it should at least attempt to honor it and that doesn't seem to be happening in Hansen's case. It only makes sense, whether PG&E admits it or not, that the cash-strapped company wouldn't be thrilled about helping promote self-sustaining home power systems.

In fact, it took a state law passed January 1 to force utilities to give greater credits to consumers with solar energy systems that produce electricity during daylight hours, when demand is highest. "They have not answered my calls, and I've been calling them for two weeks, " Hansen said. "It could have something to do with the bankruptcy, but that shouldn't disrupt normal operations."

Yesterday, PG&E spokeswoman Staci Homrig assured me that a simple phone call to customer service would answer all Hansen's questions and set him up with a two-way meter. Hansen took her advice and came up empty . . . again. The man who answered the phone told him he'd "e-mail my request to the front office," Hansen said, seriously dismayed. "That's the best he could do."

Chip Johnson's column appears in The Chronicle on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (510) 433-5984, by e-mail at chjohnson@sfchronile.com, or by writing The Chronicle at 483 Ninth St., Suite 100, Oakland, CA 94607.

2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page A - 15

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), April 10, 2001

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