Solar array optimized for the valley home of Dr. Maren L. Cooke and her family.

If dollar bills floated from the sky, chances are you’d want to snare a few. This Saturday’s fourth annual self-guided Pittsburgh Solar Tour is a chance to think about doing just that. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, visitors can investigate how 20 different homes and businesses installed solar arrays to decrease their energy bill while shrinking their environmental footprint.

Evan Endres, a project manager for PennFuture and the tour’s organizer, says investing in solar power is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

“This is an opportunity to talk to a variety of businesses and homes who have a variety of stories and reasons for [installing solar]. It’s an opportunity not to be sold [on solar], but to talk to the folks that have done it.”

Endres says connecting those who are interested with those who have taken the plunge is one of the most powerful resources PennFuture can provide; he likens it to another process that’s often fraught with experiential questions.

“If you were going to buy a car, you’d try to find someone who has the same model,” he says. He adds, “Solar has come down in price. There aren’t as many incentives now as there used to be, but it’s still a good idea.”

Here’s the surprising thing–Pittsburgh gets enough sunshine to make the commitment to solar worthwhile. In fact, compared to Germany, a country generating considerable amounts of solar power despite that it gets less sunshine than Alaska, we look like we’re sitting on a sunshine gold mine. The gap between our city (or nation) and Germany is not one of potential, but of commitment.

Committing to solar and living more sustainably is stop “D” on the tour. Here you will see the home of Dr. Maren Cooke and her spouse Dr. Neil Donahue—both of whom actively work on air quality, she as a board member of Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) and he as a CMU professor and atmospheric chemist. Their home features beehives, rainwater harvesting, passive solar and a vast array of edible crops.

“I want people to walk away knowing they can do some of these things themselves and live a richer life while having a smaller footprint,” says Cooke.

The 2.96 kilowatt array nestled among the raised beds of the rooftop garden may be small as residential installations go, but it still produces about half of the family’s energy needs. The Cooke family also has chosen Community Energy as their electricity provider to make up the rest of their usage. The company supplies power from Pennsylvania-based wind and solar projects in lieu of coal-based energy.

“We’re concerned with the human and environmental health impacts of fossil fuels,” says Cooke, “including climate change, land degradation and pollution.”

For an interactive map of Saturday’s solar tour or a PDF guide, visit PennFuture’s website. The list encompasses 15 Solar Open Houses as well as a Featured Tour of five stops that offer something beyond an array—the Millvale Library offers activities for kids and the largest residential installation in Pittsburgh offers a “Solar 101” seminar. The tour offers the chance to peer at the practical reality of solar as well as dream about its future.

Margaret J Krauss

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.