For nearly two decades, solar home tours have been educating and inspiring people to build green and adopt renewable energy.
On a chilly Saturday in October, 2012, 20 people crowded into Jason and Jennifer Clark’s garage in Talent, Oregon. A rapt audience listened as Mike Davis of SOS Plumbing explained the solar hot water system behind him. Inside, another small group filled the living room, while Charlie Hamilton of Suncrest Homes talked about the home design process and the Earth Advantage program.
The Clarks’ Earth Advantage-certified “Platinum” home was the first stop on last year’s Rogue Valley Green + Solar Tour (RVGS), organized by independent home energy rater Fred Gant and a small committee. This tour was just one of 578 registered with the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) National Solar Tour (NST). In 2012, more than 90,000 people toured a combined total of 9,000 sites—from single-family homes and rural farmhouses to libraries, schools, and even whole communities—across the country.
Tour-goers run the gamut: Builders, architects, and designers exchange business cards and schmooze while learning about local projects on the cutting edge of sustainability. Renewable energy enthusiasts check out the latest photovoltaic and solar thermal technologies. Folks who want to go solar or build a home join a tour seeking information, connections, and inspiring models.
Nonprofit ASES, one of the largest grassroots organizations promoting solar and other sustainable energy technologies, has been coordinating the NST since 1996. Most tours happen in October, in conjunction with National Energy Awareness month, and although many fall under the umbrella of one of the 55 ASES chapters, anyone can register a tour, says Ariel Braude, ASES community manager and NST coordinator. Often, tours are collaborations; for example, the Texas Solar Energy Society teams up with the Pedernales Electric Cooperative to put on the Hill Country Solar Tour. Regional and local tours typically seek sponsorship, often from companies in the renewable energy or sustainable building business.
The NST can trace some of its roots to an event that was part marketing, part political activism—National Off-the-Grid Day (NOtGD). Sponsored by solar retailer Real Goods, NOtGD was launched by a Declaration of Energy Independence to promote consciousness of the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.
In a 1993 interview with E Magazine, Real Goods founder John Schaeffer said that “the idea was to glorify our customers who were living off the grid...Our idea was to get a house in every region so people could travel a few hours at most, and walk into one of these homes.”
The first National Tour of Independent Homes (NTIH) featured fewer than 50 sites, but 500 people visited a single home in Dripping Springs, Texas. In 1994, the NTIH attracted some 5,000 people; in 1995, attendance had doubled to 10,000.
“By the end of 1995,” says Schaeffer, “we realized it was costing a lot of money to promote and put on the tour, so we started looking for the right nonprofit organization to take it over.” An announcement in the Real Goods catalog invited nonprofits to submit proposals for coordinating future tours.