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Solar power in Thunderbolt
Homeowners call it a 'win-win situation'
Julian Smith installs a solar panel - photo by Jack Star

THESE ARE SOME of the things that persuaded Richard and Katherine Claar to to install the most comprehensive solar-based system in Savannah:

• Al Gore’s An Inconvenient


• A poster promoting GreenFest,

•A TV news clip demonstrating solar panels producing enough electricity to power an air conditioner,

• And a boost in corn prices due to the ethanol boom,

• Followed by a long conversation with a solar installer.

Located in a lot set back from Bonaventure Road in Thunderbolt, the Claar house now boasts two solar hot water panels, six solar photovoltaic panels, and a Solar Tube natural lighting system.

The combination will heat a 120-gallon hot water tank, produce a kilowatt of electricity every sunny hour, and provide natural illumination of a formerly darkened room.

“We look at it as a win-win-win situation,” says Katherine Claar, “We’re gathering energy from the sun to generate part of our electricity; it’s good for the planet and neighborhood, saving on our electric bills, and taking advantage of a federal tax credit. We feel a little proud of ourselves.”

They were both impressed by the amount of information provided by Julian Smith, of SolarSmith, who designed the system and installed it with his brother Kenneth.

As Richard Claar tells his colleagues at Gulfstream, who wonder if they should install solar, “I tell them to definitely look into it. It doesn’t hurt to ask questions and you might be surprised about the answers.” He thinks that more people are looking, “but they don’t know that they are looking.”

The Claars lived on Tybee from 1995-1999, moved back to the Urbana area of Illinois, but returned in 2004 where Richard Claar resumed his quality assurance position with Gulfstream testing for hidden flaws using x-ray and ultrasound equipment.

Katherine Claar is now involved in photography and the Bonaventure Historic Society and manages the 516-acre corn and soybean family farm back in Illinois.

“I’m the third generation of female absentee landowners, “ she says.

It was at a recycling center that she noticed the poster for GreenFest where she met Julian Smith who was exhibiting there. While the couple was mulling over the idea of going solar they saw Smith’s demonstration on WTOC, and decided to ask some questions.

The ethanol boom was bringing much higher prices for the corn crop. “We were looking for a good, healthy, environmentally friendly way to use some of that money,” says Katherine Claar. “Solar fills the bill. When you put money in a Vanguard Fund it is just on paper. Solar is very tangible. It is something you can see and feel.”

“The house has a good stretch of south-facing roof,” says Julian Smith. “There was space to put in both a solar electric and a solar hot water system, with enough to double the number of panels in the future.”

The Claars also installed a Solar Tube, a dome-shaped skylight, to brighten one room. “The interior surface of this model is coated with silver,” says Julian Smith, “and reflects 98 percent of the light. It’s designed to illuminate a 600 square foot area.”

The electric system is hooked into the utility grid and all the electricity produced is sold back to Georgia Power at a much higher rate per kilowatt-hour than the Claars have to pay.

As a bonus, Julian and Kenneth Smith went to Home Depot and brought back an armload of Compact Fluorescent Bulbs and replaced almost every bulb in the house.

The combined savings in electricity using solar hot water, and the electricity generated by the photovoltaic system, start almost immediately. Her experience managing the family farm will allow Katherine Claar to accurately document the savings.

“I’ve been monitoring household cash flow ever since the farm came to me in 1980,” she says. “I have every power bill since we moved in here and I intend to start making comparisons after we get a full month’s operation.”

Richard Claar hopes that as Gulfstream starts to go green, the company will also go solar. In addition to acres of roof space, “there is marginal land that would accommodate a small ground-mounted solar farm.”