A Friendly Passerby Tells Me How To Get Solar Panels

A few days after moving into our house, I found myself out in the yard picking up the windfalls from our apple tree in order to use them in a salad that afternoon.  The sky was clear as a prism.  The sun was a hot bath on my back.  The wind around me was alive with birdsong, and I was breathing in my town.

Pete Seeger and his banjo.  Photo by Annie Leibovitz.

Pete Seeger and his banjo. Photo by Annie Leibovitz.

Beacon, as a city (and the Hudson Valley in general), has a long legacy of environmentalism.  For one, Pete Seeger made his home in Beacon.  It was here that he gathered friends and community members together to build and found the sloop Clearwater as a way to educate people about the need to clean the Hudson River.  It used to be that you could tell what color General Motors had painted the cars that day by looking at the color of the Hudson River.

That river has come a long way, in large part thanks to the efforts of Pete Seeger and the folks at Clearwater, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and environmentalists across the country who worked for policy change (like the Clean Water Act of 1972).  Now you can swim in the Hudson River, and the Clearwater’s biodiversity education programs continue to this day.  There’s power in people gathering together to stand up for their community’s health and environmental restoration.

I was pondering Beacon and the bright song of the day around me when I saw a friendly-looking redheaded gentleman walking down my street.  I called a greeting, and we began to chat over the fence.

Xavier, as it turned out, was a representative for Verengo Solar.  He asked if I had ever considered solar panels, and—having just heard about Amie’s interaction with the inspector—I assured him that we’d just been talking about the best way to get some up on our roof.

He told me about Verengo’s solar leasing option, which would allow me to get solar panels for negative dollars (if you counted the savings on my electric bill and the tax incentives we’d receive).  I gave him a thorough grilling to the extent that I could right there on the spot.  What was Verengo’s story?  How did they make money?  How long had he been working there?  (A few brief answers were given, but I explore these thoughts in more depth in future—and past—posts.)

As our conversation deepened, we stepped into the shade to rest our skin from the sun’s rays—noting the irony that the best sales pitch for solar panels on this sunny day was coming from that ball of plasma way up in the sky.

Wall painting by Giulio Parigi from the Uffizi Gallery, Stanzino delle Matematiche, in Florence, Italy, showing Archimedes' mirror being used to burn Roman military ships. Painted in 1600.

Wall painting by Giulio Parigi from the Uffizi Gallery, Stanzino delle Matematiche, in Florence, Italy, showing Archimedes’ mirror being used to burn Roman military ships. Painted in 1600.

The sun is 93 million miles away, but it sure can pack a wallop at human scales here on Earth.  In the 3rd century BC, the Greek polymath, Archimedes—a long-time fascination of mine—is rumored to have invented a way to set enemy ships on fire using polished shields as a parabolic reflector to focus the sun’s rays on oncoming ships.  Ancient Egyptians and Greeks used solar energy to passively heat their homes.  And modern Western science has researched practical applications of solar technology since Horace-Bénédict de Saussure created a solar oven in 1767.  The first photovoltaic cell was built in 1839 by Edmond Becquerel, and the technology has been getting steadily cheaper and more efficient since the first practical photovoltaic cells were made by Bell Labs in 1954.

As Xavier and I continued our discussion, I became ever more aware of all the sunlight falling mutely on my plain roof shingles.  Considering that I could be powering every light in my home, every power outlet, my refrigerator, my microwave—all from solar energy…well, it felt frankly foolish not to be utilizing that energy.  When he gave me his card and went on his way with a smile, I felt as though I’d been given the calling card for my next phase of initiation into the secret world behind things.

I had become the newest member of an ancient lineage of solar harvesters who had the wisdom to use the gifts that fell right on their heads every day.


  • I’m pretty much obligated to link out to this fantastically gorgeous video that NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) put out last week, which shows some of the most beautiful moments of the sun that they’ve captured from the five years that the project has been running.
  • Fun fact: Clearwater has a project right now where you can contribute to writing an anthem about climate change!
  • There are too many fantastic environmental organizations in the Hudson Valley to list all of them in this blog post, but luckily the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has already done that!  Check ‘em out:
  • Same goes for the national and global levels.  Here I’m going to let my good friend Wikipedia do the work (crowdsourcing to the rescue!):
  • There’s so much to say about Pete Seeger–a legendary, down-to-earth, compassionate folk singer and activist who died last January–but here are some further resources:
    • If you know nothing about Pete Seeger, start with “If I Had a Hammer“.
    • The Power of Song is a fantastic documentary about Pete’s life and work.
    • Smithsonian Folkways has a great tribute to Pete, which includes many video and audio resources from their years of work with him as the record label for the majority of his releases.
    • Also, several episodes of Pete’s 1960’s television show, Rainbow Quest, are available on YouTube and are well worth exploring (with guests like Johnny Cash, June Carter, The Stanley Brothers, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, and many more).