07/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

One Answer to New England's Home Heating Crisis

Steve Frechette is an oilman. So I was a little surprised when I dropped by his house on a muggy July day to find him standing waist deep in a trench, wrestling with two 10 foot steel posts. They stuck up like goal posts some six feet apart from each other. A four inch conduit pipe dropped into a recently backfilled track that ran straight towards his house. Steve was installing a solar collector in his front lawn.

Don't get me wrong: Steve isn't a blue-suit corporate type. He's the kind of guy who rolls up his sleeves and get dirty. For three generations, the small fleet of trucks belonging to Frechette Oil and Backhoe Service have been a familiar sight around the towns and villages of Carroll County, chortling off purposefully to do their work of keeping the community warm all winter long. When his grandfather first got into the business, they delivered coal. In 1967, his father decided to make the change to oil. And now, some 41 years later, Steve's moving the family business into solar heating. Like most Yankees, it's important to him that he practices what he preaches. Steve's first gig? Installing a solar water heater at his own home.

Steve's decision couldn't be more timely. The region currently faces nothing less than a full blown crisis driven by heating oil prices that have nearly doubled in the past 12 months. Last year, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program provided 25 million dollars to 33,000 New Hampshire families. At a meeting of New England governors in Boston last week, New Hampshire Governor John Lynch said that double that amount was needed for the coming winter. Even if Washington provides that much funding, the crunch will be acutely felt -- especially by middle class families who don't qualify for federal assistance. Might solar be the answer?

While we waited for the concrete truck to arrive and pour the footings, Steve led me into his basement, bounding down the stairs two at a time. He dove into the basics of the system. An eight foot by five foot solar collector made up of evacuated tubes captures energy from the sun and uses it to heat a closed loop system that is pumped to a heat exchanger in his basement, where it warms the household supply of potable water. A computerized controller regulates the temperature and flow through the use of pumps, and an electric heater stores the hot water and functions as a back up. "In summer, this will produce 100 percent of our hot water, and in winter, probably about 80 percent," Steve told me. Ironically, the biggest problem is having too much hot water, which must be drained off via a relief valve.

Steve estimates that his solar water system will save around 250 gallons of heating oil a year (heating oil currently costs $4.69 in the area... you do the math). Depending on the size of the house, a system runs between 7,000 and 11,000 dollars. "BUT -- that's before the tax rebates", Steve added with the mischievous sparkle of a salesman. Considering the federal tax incentive (a 30 percent rebate), and many state rebates stacked on top of that (in NH, another 25 percent), a system might pay for itself in only three or four years.

Even to someone who sells oil, this makes a lot of sense. Of course, Steve also sees business opportunity: nobody else in the local community installs solar water systems like this. I asked Steve why more people in the industry haven't come around to solar technology. "I think a lot of guys were skeptical when it first became available, back in the late 70's and 80's," he answered. "And that was bad technology, with lots of maintenance involved." He adds that many tradesmen are still wary of installing new, unproven technology -- and then backing their work with a twenty or thirty year guarantee. Furthermore, new systems mean taking time off from work to learn how to properly install and maintain them. And finally, you have to be able to sell them. That's no sure thing in rural New England, where the average income is 37,000 dollars.

Five dollar a gallon gas might be the best thing to ever happen to the green revolution, but there are still plenty of reasons to stay on the sidelines, especially if you happen to be a rural tradesman trying to support a family in middle of the worst economic slump in a generation. Why stick your neck out and make the leap to alternative energy? Steve may be the most optimistic guy in the whole county. And winning the hearts and minds of more guys like Steve -- the heating experts who keep you warm, the electricians who wire your house, the mechanics who fix your car -- should be the green revolution's top priority.

As for Steve, he cautions that solar water systems like the one he's installing can only do so much. "Some of these 5,000 - 6,000 square foot homes that are being built are ridiculous. Even 3,000 square feet is pretty big. People need to start building smaller, and they need to build for maximum southern exposure, not the best view."

Of course if you're not interested, Steve will be happy to sell you heating oil, delivered right to your door step, at the going rate of 4.69 a gallon.