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Women of the Sun

By Stephen Morris

Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman loves harmony. As a member of Robert DeCormier’s Counterpoint, one of Vermont’s finest professional vocal ensembles, she performs and records in a wide variety of styles and languages. Counterpoint’s Christmas Show is an annual classic, carried nationally on National Public Radio. As a founding member of the Celestial Sirens, a group that focuses on early music, Chesnut-Tangerman has performed on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. In addition, she teaches choral music at the Long Trail School in Dorset, and coaches a talented cluster of teens called the Outer Lemmings.

Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman

Musician Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman of Middletown Springs, is president of the Solarfest board of trustees.
Photo: Margaret Michniewicz

Chesnut-Tangerman’s love of harmony might also explain her affinity for solar energy. She is President of the Board of Trustees for SolarFest, an annual summer event that promotes awareness of renewable energy through a festival that is equal parts education, celebration, and music. Her home is solar-powered, too.

She lives with her husband, Robin, in a solar thermal home that they built themselves. (“Solar thermal” structures are heated by the sun, as opposed to those that are “solar electric” which use photovoltaic panels to convert the sun’s energy into usable electricity.) Their heat is supplemented by another form of renewable energy, wood burned in a woodstove.

Although the couple figure that their investment in solar will be recaptured fully in five or six years, this was not the motivating factor behind their decision to “go solar.” Like many renewable energy advocates, Chesnut-Tangerman sees this decision as a personal statement within a global context: “It gives me immense happiness to say that we will never buy another drop of heating oil, that we do not (at least in that way) contribute to war, global warming and pollution. We know that putting our resources where our beliefs are is in some small way contributing to a solution where humans live more in harmony with the earth.”

As a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1980s, Chesnut-Tangerman’s eyes were first opened to the need to embrace renewable energy sources in Kenya where she saw firsthand the consequences of deforestation and lack of fuel. As a result, she admits to having become a fanatic about resource consumption in the home. “My children will vouch for the frequency of my reminders to turn out lights.”

For many years, however, despite her involvement with SolarFest and living in houses with “Save a Watt” stickers on every switchplate, she and Robin longed to build an energy-efficient home where they could align their resource consumption and their values. When the opportunity finally came, they embraced it.

While Chesnut-Tangerman is willing to leave some of the technical aspects of installation to her husband, she thinks it important that women not abandon their role in managing the home’s energy system. “The day-to-day running of a house remains the province of women. We must overcome cultural stereotypes, self-imposed or otherwise. We run computers and washers and cars and tractors. Monitoring and troubleshooting a solar system is just one more thing to be learned,” she says.

There is part of the cultural stereotype that she is willing to embrace, however, as essential to the acceptance of solar. “Women have innate tendencies to preserve life and to nurture life-giving forms. A sincere concern for the future of the planet and our offspring will be essential to the popularization of solar. These factors mitigate the higher initial cost and more interactive management requirements of renewable energy systems. Not that men don’t feel deeply about these same issues, but women, since they often provide the emotional focus within the family, will need to take the lead when it comes to accepting renewable energy.”

Solar Cowgirl

Acceptance by the woman of the house will be essential for solar energy to escape the backwoods shacks and camps where it has languished since the 1970s.

Soft-spoken Dori Wolfe is the antithesis of a tomboy, but there is no disputing her solar credentials. In a field dominated until recently by tinkerers sometimes described as “solar cowboys,” Wolfe is a trained and licensed professional engineer. She is the principal system designer for Global Resource Options, a fast-growing distributor and installer of renewable energy systems throughout the Northeast, which she co-founded with her husband Jeff. Until recently, she also wore the hat of Chief Financial Officer, and is a mother of two. Her life is full.

The daughter of an engineer who sensitized her to energy issues at an early age, Wolfe is accustomed to finding herself as “the only” or “the first” woman in different situations. She was one of the few women in her engineering discipline in college. She was the first female engineer hired by the heating, venting, and air conditioning firm for which she worked after college. She does not, however, consider herself a pioneer. “That work was done by the generation before me.”

Wolfe, like Chesnut-Tangerman, is a musician. The two have shared the stage at SolarFest, where Wolfe has performed “What’s a Watt?” and other original songs to help young people understand the principles of renewable energy. Energy education is a personal hot button, and it is a dream of Wolfe’s to dedicate herself fully to education once the business has become stable and sustainable. With the assistance of a $1000 grant she created the “Suncatcher Educator,” an interactive method of demonstrating the principles of sustainable energy, including the conversion of light from the sun into electricity.

“Kids get it right away,” she says.

Wolfe’s company has outgrown its sun- and wind-powered home office in Strafford and they now maintain a second facility in White River Junction. Thanks to state-sponsored incentive programs in New Jersey and New York the company has been on a fast-track for growth, leaving even less time for music or education.

Because both Wolfes work in the solar industry, Dori is in as good a position as anyone to notice the impact of gender differences when it comes to renewable energy. “The big changes have come at the user level,” Wolfe explains. “Men still are interested in how systems work and how long it will take to recover costs, but women are increasingly attuned to the need for us to find a solar solution to the planet’s energy crisis. Living with solar is now as convenient as flipping a switch. It has now passed a threshold where the benefits justify the investment.”

Wolfe tells of working home shows not many years ago when much of the time was spent explaining to passers-by what a solar panel was and how it worked. Now, she says, conversations are more likely to touch on what, if any, concessions will be made to a conventional lifestyle by going solar. “It is a maintenance free, non-polluting form of energy generation,” Wolfe says. “Homeowners don’t have to change their lifestyles to incorporate solar. Of course, we always encourage conservation as the best first step.”

Wolfe believes that the key development in the growing acceptance of solar has been the advent of net-metered, battery-less systems. Instead of storing solar-generated electricity in battery banks, the homeowner can now feed it directly back into the power grid where it actually causes the electric meter to run backwards. The flip side is that grid-supplied power is conveniently available for those short, gray days of December, January, and February. Very few homes in Vermont rely on 100% solar. Today’s hybrid systems which integrate solar with the electric grid make the phenomenon of “no sun, no juice” a thing of the past.

These “grid intertie” systems allow homeowners to sell surplus power back to the utility. Long opposed by the keepers of the grid, but now required by law in most states, this has created the real prospect of small, decentralized, non-polluting power stations that will reduce dependence on fossil fuel or nuclear generated electricity in the future.

Art of Solar Gain

Typical of the new solar consumer is Margaret (Peggy) Kannenstine of Woodstock. For Kannenstine, light serves much the same function as harmony does for Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman. She’s an artist. Her home, a 1920s-era gambrel with many windows and a pillared, brick-floored porch, is awash in light. Although the house has conventional grid power, Kannenstine and her husband Lou wanted the security of back-up power. Assisted by Global Resource Options, they installed a large photovoltaic array on the roof of their 150 year-old barn, and a nearly invisible PV “screen” in the pans of the standing seam roof of their home. The system connects to a bank of batteries sufficient for the farm to operate for up to four days without any sun at all.

Now they can watch the sun track across the roofs of their southeast-facing farm and experience the unique joy of watching their electric meter run backwards. Perhaps someday the technology will evolve so that they can generate power on bright, moonlit nights! Economics, however, was a secondary motivation in deciding to install their solar system.

“People seem to always want information on the payback period,” says Kannenstine, “but for us the choice was a preference to live in harmony with nature. Our electric bills are lower, but our payback comes from knowing that our power comes from a permanent and sustainable source — the sun.”

Solar energy has been liberated from its gender ghetto. Once believed to be the exclusive province of the technically-oriented male of the species, the industry has grown beyond its world of charge controllers and quixel gizmos to address consumer issues of performance, price, and style. Not surprisingly, as this has happened the interest of women has grown.

“Vermont is conducive to solar and other renewables because of the type of person who is attracted — and able — to live here,” says Chesnut-Tangerman. “We tend to be pioneer types, creative enough to hunt and gather a living out of multiple prospects, more than a little passionate about the natural world. Many of us grew up in overpopulated suburban wastelands, and we know what we don’t want Vermont to become.”

If Vermont seems like an unlikely place for solar to be practical, these women are quick to set the record straight. “Solar gain has to do with hours and intensity, not temperature,” explains Chesnut-Tangerman. Vermont is actually split by the 45th parallel of latitude, putting it on a solar par with the south of France. “If solar can serve in Vermont, it can be successful almost anywhere,” she says.

Meanwhile, to the south, at Harvard, the controversy rages about the university president who suggested that there are gender differences between the innate capacities of men and women for technical and scientific matters. In the North Country, however, such differences seem less important in households that harvest their power from the sun. As Vermont’s “women of the sun” know, the sun shines equally on all. The challenge, for all, is to convince more people to harvest their power from the sun. 

Stephen Morris is a business consultant and writer from Randolph, Vermont. He is a founder of The Public Press (www.thepublicpress.com).

(photo caption) Musician Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman of Middletown Springs, is president of the Solarfest board of trustees.

Photo: Margaret Michniewicz