Wattage as activism

Instead of retiring somewhere warm, they doubled down on solar

25 Sep 2019 | 04:04

Mary Endico and her husband Bob Fugett were at a juncture in their lives. Endico, 65, is a watercolor artist whose gallery has been a staple of the artisan hamlet of Sugar Loaf for 42 years. She has sold over 21,000 pieces from the 300-year-old house where the couple lives and works. “I’ve slowed down and raised my prices, but when I was a kid I was banging them out,” she said. These days she finds herself selling art to the grandchildren of her original customers.

Was it time to retire? Move somewhere warm? “How old do you want to be shoveling?” they asked themselves. Endico’s mother had recently passed, and she herself was just wrapping up 16 years of treatment for breast cancer. It was a time of flux, with all options on the table.

“My business is so central to my life and happiness that I can’t leave,” Endico decided. “Let’s make this our nursing home.”

So they went big, investing in an array of solar panels that should cover the couple’s energy costs, including their electric car, for the rest of their lives. Endico believes theirs might be the most complex solar array in New York State, possibly in the continental U.S. “We had to talk to Tesla installers in Hawaii,” she said.

The 45 panel, 14.7 kilowatt array, installed by New York State Solar Farm, is hooked up not only to the electrical grid, but also to a pair of Tesla Powerwall batteries. The sleek batteries, which weigh in at 260 pounds each, are mounted side by side on the cement block wall of their ancient basement. Normally, their solar array is connected to the grid. But they can throw a switch and disconnect, running their house off the batteries. And in the case of an extended blackout, they have a propane generator that would kick in if needed.

“The goal of this whole project was to be self-sufficient on the winter solstice on a gray day,” said Endico. The system went online on Aug. 17, and less than two months later had fed a megawatt of surplus power back onto the grid.

Thanks to the exorbitant cost of the batteries – which was inflated because of the complex wiring job – it might be 10 to 12 years before the couple sees a return on their $57,000 investment. But that’s not the point. Endico and Fugett, a musician, are motivated by environmental activism. “It’s too much what they’re doing to the environment,” said Endico. She’d been painting abstracts based on images of clumps of plastic in the ocean, but “it wasn’t enough,” she said.

The couple asked themselves what they could do. They don’t have kids, and they’d done pretty well for themselves. “Solar’s not really ready,” Endico recalls thinking. “I don’t know if it’s the thing to do... but it’s the thing to do.”

They installed not one but two electric-car charging stations, one for their Chevy Bolt, and another for the public to use, free.

“Trump can roll back any law he wants, but he will never be able to touch the law of gravity, nor renege on our treaty with the sun,” Fugett wrote on Twitter in September.

Endico has listed their charging station on three apps. So far, no takers. Endico shrugs. She herself can make it to the city and back on a charge, so she has no need to recharge elsewhere, either. Takers are probably on their way, though, since electric car technology is young and growing fast.

Sales of electric vehicles increased 63 percent in New York last year, jumping to 36,854 from 24,551 in 2017, according to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. The state has pledged to increase the number of electric vehicles on the road to roughly 850,000 by 2025, and in late October NY State Senator Chuck Schumer put forth a proposal to make all vehicles on American roads zero-emmissions by 2040 -- which will require a surge in power generation.

The couple's state-of-the-art home-office is quite a leap from the “dump” that Endico and Fugett moved into when they were in their 20s, so drafty that when the wind blew, the candles blew out. They made gradual improvements over the years, stuffing insulation into every nook and cranny, soundproofing the basement to make Fugett’s recording studio. Then came a burst of progress that started two years ago, when the couple bought mini-splits that heat and cool the house using electricity. After that came an electric snow blower, weed whacker, leaf blower, and the week I visited, the newest addition had arrived: a $13,000 ride-on lawnmower called the Nemesis.

“He’s gone crazy,” said Endico, of Fugett’s buying spree. But she’s gotten onboard with his philosophy, that if you’re going to do all this, you might as well do it. After all, she said: “If not now, when?”

We walk out into the two-acre yard for a close up view of the array, which sits on a pad of gravel. When they were considering solar, Endico was apprehensive about the aesthetics. Now she sees the sleek sheet of panels as a sort of modern sculpture. Shortly after its installation, she snapped a picture of a double rainbow that appeared to be emanating from the panels. She stands next to the array to demonstrate how tiny she looks in comparison. "Watercolors," she said with a sweep of her arm, "paid for this."

“We had this wonderful yard, and the only one enjoying it was the dog,” she said. Now, “we have a solar garden, cranking out electricity like no one’s business.”

Cost (after tax credits): $57,073

45 solar panel array: $35,373

2 Tesla batteries: $21,700