updated 9/6/2005 10:13:46 AM ET 2005-09-06T14:13:46

On bright sunny days, the electric meter sometimes turns backwards at Don Huisingh’s house.

That’s because the 27 solar energy panels on his roof are making more electricity than his 3,000-square-foot lakefront home is using.

“It is like a new baby,” the University of Tennessee professor said of his $40,000 photovoltaic system. Installed in July, the system sends any extra juice to the Tennessee Valley Authority power grid.

“I go out there and check it out. How much did we generate today? How much did we consume? You really have a new consciousness as a result of being tied into that. You really tune in, sort of like tuning into the rhythm of nature.”

The scene may be common in California or New Jersey, where electricity costs are skyrocketing and homegrown solar power gets state tax breaks.

But Huisingh’s house, which recently joined 10 other solar homes and Middle Tennessee State University’s solar site on the TVA grid, is a pioneering venture in the Southeast, where native coal has kept energy prices low.

“The technology works. It has been working for quite some time,” said Thomas Tripp of Chattanooga, president of the Tennessee Solar Energy Association. “It is just this region has been kind of isolated and unaware of it because we have had such good reliable cheap power here.”

Smoggy skies and rising pollution concerns blamed on coal-fired power plants are changing the dynamic.

Huisingh said he wants to be “part of the solution rather than being part of the problem.” His solar house should offset more than 9,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

TVA is spending billions to cut these smokestack emissions while also fostering an alternative energy movement in its territory. The nation’s largest public utility powers most of Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

TVA’s Green Power Switch now sells pollution-free power for a premium to more than 8,200 homes and 428 businesses, including Tennessee’s state park system.

Supported by several small solar demonstration sites across the valley, the South’s first major wind farm and a methane-recovery facility, Green Power Switch reached out to solar- and wind-powered homeowners about two years ago.

TVA offered to pay 15 cents for every kilowatt hour of homegrown power they produce — slightly more than double the 6 to 7 cents a kilowatt hour homeowners pay for power from their TVA distributor. TVA also threw in a $500 bonus.

Today, these Generation Partners provide 57 kilowatts of electric capacity. Middle Tennessee State’s solar unit is the biggest at 10 kilowatts. Huisingh’s home is the largest residential provider with 4.5 kilowatts. Together, they produced 11,464 kilowatt hours last year.

This pales to the 1,200-megawatt capacity of a nuclear reactor TVA will bring on line next year in Alabama.

“But it is much better from our standpoint to do it on a small scale and get those individuals involved because there is a residual effect, a multiplier,” said program manager Ed Colston. “Every one of those individuals who goes out and looks for a contractor and buys a system is contributing to the entire chain of the technology development.”

A national energy bill recently signed by President Bush contains the first tax breaks for alternative energy in more than 20 years, providing tax credits worth 30 percent of residential solar panels, capped at $2,000.

But TVA learned in the 1980s, when it pushed a solar water heater program that died when its tax credits expired, that to be successful green power also needs an infrastructure of dealers, installers and informed power distributors.

TVA has been working toward that end, encouraging its 158 distributors and setting some guidelines for net meter reading — solar houses have one meter to track solar generation and another to measure consumption — as well as billing, technology and incentives.

TVA also helped develop courses for solar system installers at Cleveland State Community College.

Rhone Resch, president of the Washington-based Solar Energy Industry Association, praised TVA for taking a leadership role, particularly on metering and connection issues, which he called “the two most fundamental market barriers that prevent solar from being used in greater amounts in this country.”

While solar power systems are expensive, advocates say they can last 30 years or more with little maintenance, can add equity value to a home and can allow a homeowner to lock in their electric costs for decades.

They don’t have to be as expensive as Huisingh’s $40,000 system, either.

Four of the 11 houses in TVA’s Generation Partners program are low-cost, super-energy-efficient Habitat for Humanity homes in Lenoir City designed and monitored by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The houses each use less than $1 a day in electricity.

Jeff Christian, the lab’s building technology center director, briefed President Bush about the Habitat homes in March. The president wanted to know if the under-$100,000 price of the houses included their solar panels.

“Yes sir, it does,” Christian said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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