Clever Green

Florida is starved for electricity. Some eco-renegades are growing their own.

The Putneys were en route to the Bahamas in the late Eighties when the boat needed a repair. They put in at Key Largo and decided to stay. They wanted to live out their golden years in quiet, surrounded by nature. After two years on Key Largo, though, they started feeling hemmed in by weekend homes. "We began looking for the place that seemed like it would resist development the longest," said Mick.

So, like the key deer, the manatee, and other endangered species, the Putneys retreated to the habitat that would best support the dwindling numbers of their population, a landscape where aged hippies could thrive without the threat of encroaching development. They found protected status on No Name, and not simply because it was a wildlife refuge. The real reason the island seemed safe was because it is off the grid: No power lines. No water mains.

Being the handy, spry 78-year-old he is, Putney set about designing his house. With the help of a few concrete-pourers and electricians, he built it from the ground up. He kept the climate in mind: Fans, cross-breezes, and a draft-providing cupola would make life without air conditioning tolerable.

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He learned lessons and made mistakes. As he set about commissioning a manhole cover for his 16,500-gallon rainwater cistern, the men at the foundry laughed at him. Cisterns, they told him, are commonplace in the Caribbean, and they sell hatch doors for them. Putney came to realize that although his project might be considered obscure in Florida, in places with scarcer resources it would have been deemed normal.

He installed a reverse osmosis pumping system to make the water drinkable. A passive solar water heater would make it hot. Finally, for electricity, current generated by solar panels on the roof would be stored in a bank of batteries, which would power the house's TV set, computer, fax machine, lights, toaster oven, washer and dryer, and pretty much anything else a normal house might have. Putney completed his home in 1992.

On a recent afternoon, Alicia Putney was holed up in her office in front of her iMac, absorbed in one of various environmental causes the Putneys support. They're used to visitors stopping by to see the house. She walked outside to stretch and take a break. A casually dressed 56-year-old with graying hair, Alicia says she didn't feel old until she reached the age her husband was when they married. He was 44 and she was 22. They've been together 34 years and plan to live out the rest in the house they built.

The environmental model on No Name Key was not particularly motivated by do-gooders, but somewhere along the way the island became an epicenter for renewable energy in South Florida. The local sales representative for Kyocera photovoltaic panels lives here. Dan Morris, who grew up spending summers at his family's vacation home on the island, is now an electric engineer and one of the most prolific installers of solar electric systems in Palm Beach County. Tours of curious copycats drive through to knock on doors and learn how it's done. The residents of No Name Key, once considered the local loons, are now eco-revolutionaries. "We've gone from people seeing us as a bunch of nuts to being heroic pioneers," Mick Putney said with evident glee.

Wearing a worn T-shirt, cut-off jean shorts, flip-flops, and his white hair pulled back into a ponytail, Putney stared up at his self-sustaining house with satisfaction on a scorching sunny afternoon in May. He squinted at the solar panels on his roof. "They operate at about 25 percent efficiency," he said. He turned and pointed to the gumbo limbo tree next to him. "The leaves on that are 98 percent efficient."

"Chlorophyll," he muttered. "Respect nature."

Roger Messenger is a retired Florida Atlantic University professor of electrical engineering who now installs solar panels full-time for a living. He works out of Boca Raton and is so tired of driving to South Miami every time a homeowner wants to install a photovoltaic panel that he has dedicated himself to training his competition, teaching eight-hour seminars on Saturdays at Miami Dade College.

"Looking at all the new construction going on, there's plenty of business for everyone, and no reason for us not to help other people," he said. And there does appear to be a need; the Florida Solar Energy Center lists in its directory only one Miami-Dade-based contractor who is licensed to install solar panels. Messenger's office, just for fun, estimated how long it would take them to install photovoltaic systems on every house in South Florida. At a rate of two houses a day, the answer they deduced was twenty years.

A recent drizzly morning found the gray-haired, mild-mannered Messenger before a class of fourteen architects, electricians, and curious homeowners, all of them men, sitting on red chairs dotted with old chewing gum, notebooks open.

He clicked through the introduction of his PowerPoint presentation on installation. Messenger is a techie by nature, but he has learned to restrain himself. Arriving at a slide displaying a complicated diagram of wavy lines in various colors, he said, "Okay, this is how a photovoltaic cell works," looking briefly at the slide and pausing. "You shine a light on it and it makes electricity."

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