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Circuit Breaker

John Berton Cuts the Cord to Com Ed

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John Berton leaned against the dryer in his basement one afternoon in late September, writing down everything he needed to buy before he could disconnect from Commonwealth Edison's power grid. In a small room a few feet away, 50 gurgling nickel-iron batteries surged with enough energy to power his entire apartment.

The National Tour of Solar Homes was only a couple weeks away, and the local program advertised Berton's Ravenswood apartment as the only Chicago residence that was off the grid. It was true that ComEd wasn't providing Berton's electricity--but the sun was supplying power only to his refrigerator and one wall outlet. From that outlet, in his living room, extension cords snaked across the floor to power lamps and appliances in the rest of his apartment. The other outlets and overhead lights were still wired to ComEd, though he wouldn't use them. The stairway leading up to his apartment was dark at night, so he would warn visitors to watch their step. If they insisted on reaching for the switch, he would politely stifle a groan and allow ComEd to illuminate their way.

Berton didn't want anyone on the tour to trip over his extension cords or to get the mistaken impression that living with solar power meant sacrificing comfort. He wanted his solar system, eight years in the making, to provide electricity as unobtrusively as ComEd does. He wanted it to come from every switch and outlet.

He had a lot of work to do and little time to do it. His job as a computer consultant tied up his days, and he had opera tickets, travel plans, a friend's lecture to attend. And a new romance was proving a terrible distraction.

Fortunately, Berton's friend Vladimir Nekola, an electrician and renewable-energy contractor, had agreed to help him finish. Berton wrote while Nekola rattled off the parts they needed: a transfer switch, a charge controller, a 16-breaker panel, a 12-breaker panel, 12 20-amp breaker switches, 20 15-amp breaker switches, three 60-amp double breakers, two breaker boxes, a 100-amp pullout disconnect, a two-inch pipe, lugs, cables, brackets, four 90-degree one-inch Greenfield connectors. Eventually the list filled an entire sheet of Berton's legal pad. So far he'd spent "more than most people make in a year" on his solar system. He estimated the new parts would cost another $1,000.

"Pretty scary," he said. "But there's no way I'd stop now. It's inconceivable. If I had to eat bread and water for a year, I would finish this system."

Renewable energy first piqued Berton's interest in the 70s, back when a series of nerve-racking events--the Middle East oil embargo, the national coal miners' strike, and the Three Mile Island accident--dominated the news and made exploring alternative energy sources seem prudent.

Yet Berton worried less about shortages or freak accidents than the everyday environmental impact of producing energy. At the time, ComEd was burning 17 million tons of coal each year, polluting the air with large amounts of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, which caused acid rain and contaminated the soil. The company also operated seven nuclear power plants (and had plans to build several more)--making Illinois home to more reactors than any other state and generating huge quantities of radioactive waste.

Berton had been ecologically minded for as long as he could remember. Born in 1955, he grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, in a modest two-story gray clapboard house flanked by tall pine trees in front and back, an anomaly in a suburb of meticulously trimmed lawns. When he was 13 he and his sister joined an organized effort to clean up the Rouge River, and later, on their own initiative, they picked up trash from the forest surrounding the Henry Ford mansion, a few miles from where they lived.

At Kalamazoo College, Berton studied biology and botany. He loved nature, but not to the exclusion of big cities and all that they offered--especially within walking distance. He moved to Chicago in June 1977, on the day after he graduated.

Until the Three Mile Island accident in March 1979, antinuke protesters received little press. They were generally regarded, according to the Tribune, as "kooks and soreheads." But in the wake of the accident--and the release of the eerily prescient movie The China Syndrome--columnists openly wondered, Could a nuclear disaster happen here? That May 65,000 activists descended on Washington for the largest protest since the Vietnam war, at which one speaker optimistically welcomed the beginning of the "solar age."

Berton admired the protesters but had no interest in holding placards or shouting slogans himself. He was more comfortable quietly contributing to a better environment by making responsible choices every day. He owned few electrical appliances--he had no television, no microwave, no hair dryer. He wouldn't ride escalators, which he considered a waste of energy and symbols of a disturbing trend toward an indolent existence. And he wondered about the cost of such conveniences to people's health as well as the environment. Later he would refuse to take jobs in the suburbs that he couldn't reach by public transportation, and would pedal to work in the city year-round, drying off any sweat in Grant Park or in a rest room, then donning the suit he carried rolled up in his backpack.

Berton talked about his concerns for hours at a stretch with his friend Andy Kerr, an antinuke activist who worked for the American Friends Service Committee. Kerr offered lots of specific information that confirmed Berton's worries about the environmental hazards associated with nuclear power. Berton found the production of radioactive waste particularly disturbing. Each ComEd reactor produced 30 tons of waste each year; much of it had a half-life of 50,000 years, yet there was no truly safe way to store it. He considered it the height of irresponsibility to burden future generations with developing a means by which to decontaminate the waste.

Berton knew that clean, renewable sources of energy existed--the wind, sun, and water. And he knew that earlier in the century water had helped spur the nation's industrial growth by powering heavy machinery. He and Kerr visited someone they knew who was refurbishing a small hydroelectric plant in southwestern Michigan. Impressed by what they saw, they went on road trips to river towns across northwest Indiana and southwest Michigan, searching for remnants of small plants, stopping when they saw anything that looked like an abandoned mill or an old dam.

One day they stumbled on a plant that was still operating. The old man who ran it told them he'd been using water to make electricity for 50 years. He gave them a tour, explaining how the force of water released by the dam rotated two turbines in a pit near the embankment. The old man then led them to a small brick building where a well-oiled generator purred, powered by the turbines. Berton was awed. Electricity had always been an invisible force he took for granted--magic in the walls. Now electricity was something you could make.

The son of a car-safety research engineer and a language and literature scholar who dabbled in pottery, Berton was adept at working with his hands and easily grasped complex technical concepts. Yet while he was growing up he eschewed most do-it-yourself projects. His father always wanted to help, and his kind of help frustrated Berton. "First you have to swear, then you get the wrench out and pound with the wrench till you realize you need a hammer."

After college Berton became a "making-things person in a big way," according to his girlfriend at the time, Barbara Carney. He took a job in a woodworking factory, building a kitchen cabinet and a dining room table for himself in his spare time. He rented space at a ceramics studio and eventually eliminated from his home every bowl, plate, and drinking vessel he hadn't crafted himself.

He also liked exploring how interrelated parts made systems operate. He tinkered with his 1971 Datsun and learned to do his own repairs. He eventually rebuilt the motor, rewired the electrical system, replaced the clutch, the starter, the brakes.

In 1981, while working in a friend's law office, he encountered his first computer. Intrigued, he fiddled around with it, asking himself how he could direct it to do what he wanted. He says that after a while the answer just came to him, and soon he was programming the PC. When he realized people would pay him to "sit around and play all day," he knew he'd found his career. At his first real programming job, for a real estate syndication company, he quickly mastered Lotus and then discovered he could make the program do things its manual didn't describe. He became known around the office as the "Lotus god."

In 1984 he and Carney bought a two-flat in Ravenswood just north of Lawrence. They gutted and rehabbed the building themselves, then rebuilt the garage. Carney faithfully read manuals, focused on details, broke everything down into steps; Berton dove right in, worked intuitively in a way he describes as "open the box, toss out the instructions, drag the thing out, and see how it works." They clashed often but ultimately saw benefits in each other's approach. There were times Berton wished he'd read the instructions, and times Carney was impressed by his improvisation.

In 1988 Berton subscribed to Home Power magazine, a "godsend" for people who knew nothing about solar power but intended to produce it anyway. He scoured each issue and decided that converting his apartment to solar electricity would both satisfy his natural curiosity about how things worked and allow him to consume electricity in an ecologically benign way. Of course he didn't know much about electrical engineering or solar equipment. But lack of knowledge had always been a small obstacle.

Not so fast, said Carney. It wasn't that she didn't like the idea or didn't trust him to carry it out expertly. She did. She thought of Berton as a "beach master"--the type of person you could rely on if you ever had to launch a beach invasion. He could plow ahead on an important task without needing a lot of information, deal with events as they unfolded while maintaining his equanimity, and make practical decisions without being distracted or letting anyone get in his way. Yet as much as she trusted him to get the information he needed to be comfortable with the project, she also wanted him to get the information she needed. It was her building too.

Berton did his research and excitedly passed on relevant information. He explained that he would put photovoltaic panels on the roof and a bank of batteries that were about twice the size of standard car batteries in the basement. Sunlight would hit the panels, freeing electrons from silicon atoms and generating an electric current that would charge the batteries. The batteries would then feed 12 volts of direct-current power (current that flows in one direction) to an inverter, which would turn it into 120 volts of standard alternating-current power (current that changes direction).

Berton subscribed to industry catalogs--"Backwoods Solar Electric," "Hydrogen Consultants," "Alternative Energy Engineering." He flipped through them at home and at work, overwhelmed by the assortment of equipment inside. What were charge controllers and line boosters? Should he go with nickel-iron batteries or lead-acid batteries?

He called the catalogs' 800 numbers to consult with the people peddling the goods. Everyone told him that before he embarked on such an ambitious project he should assess his energy needs and see where he could conserve. He was already conscientious about energy use, but he saw room for improvement. He bought energy-efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs, a program to shut off computer hardware when it wasn't in use, and a battery-operated refrigerator that used one-ninth the power of a standard model.

Berton called the city's Department of Buildings to ask about regulations on solar power. They transferred him and transferred him, until eventually he thanked someone and hung up, satisfied that he could proceed--if a city ordinance restricted or prohibited the work he wanted to do, no one knew about it.

Each day enough sunlight hits the earth to provide its inhabitants with 27 years of energy, but Berton needed to know how much he could realistically harness in Chicago. The catalogs contained "insolation" maps of the United States that indicated the amount of usable sunlight--"sun hours," measured in watts per square meter--each region could expect. Berton saw that even in the summer Chicago averaged a mere four sun hours per day.

Sometimes people from the catalog companies tried to discourage him, warning that it would cost a fortune to buy all the equipment necessary to compensate for Chicago's lousy insolation. But Berton decided that money wouldn't prevent him from forging ahead with his project--it would only prevent him from completing it quickly.

Berton wasn't ready to move quickly anyway. He still had a lot of research to do, and he still needed to learn to think in terms of voltage and amp hours and kilowatts.

Eventually he began to feel familiar with solar and electrical terminology and grew confident enough to make some decisions. In early 1991 he saw an ad in Home Power for a set of ten 20-year-old nickel-iron batteries for $625. Nickel-iron batteries were hard to find in the U.S. He was told that companies had replaced them with lead-acid batteries because they were too reliable--made to last 60, perhaps 80 years--and once customers bought them they never returned. Lead-acid batteries lasted only 5 to 10 years and required regular maintenance; nickel-iron ones needed only infrequent watering. Yet lead-acid batteries did have some pluses: they gave up power faster and held their charge longer. But Berton determined that for his purposes these differences were negligible. He called the number advertised in Home Power and made his first purchase.

Not long afterward, Berton received a big bonus check and decided to splurge. Carney had yet to fully support the solar conversion, but he figured it would be easier to get her forgiveness than her permission. He picked up the phone and ordered an inverter and a battery-operated refrigerator with oak veneer and brushed aluminum edges. He hung up $3,500 poorer, sucked in his breath, and wondered, "My God, what am I getting myself into?"

A trickle of equipment began arriving at his office in huge boxes. His boss would say, "John, there's another package for you," and Berton would rush over to the receiving area, haul the box back to his cubicle, and unwrap it on the spot. The next day he would drive his 20-year-old Datsun to work so he could transport the equipment home.

He bought a set of 12 solar panels from a recently dismantled demonstration plant in southern California, marveling at their beauty as he unwrapped them. Each was the size and shape of a full-length mirror, with a burnt-orange-flecked surface. He stored the panels in his garage along with the other items, eager for the day he would hoist them to the roof.

Berton moved more cautiously with his solar system than with his other home-improvement projects. He'd invested too much money in the equipment to assemble it hastily, and he knew he still had a lot to learn. Different catalog companies often gave him conflicting advice. He would call around, hoping for someone to break a tie, then get confused by new opinions.

In June 1991 he went to the annual Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, in Amherst, Wisconsin. He wandered around among the hippies, tinkerers, and farmers who dominated the crowd, coveting the vendors' displays, dazzled by the model solar-powered home. Having just depleted most of his disposable income on the basics, he left empty-handed but more inspired than ever. He was ready to begin.

Upon hearing the news, Carney was none too pleased. She still worried about everything that could go wrong. What if the panels blew off the roof and slammed into the neighbors' building? What if the roof sagged and the rafters came crashing down?

Berton assured her everything would be fine and walked her through his plans. When she was barely comfortable with the idea, he began to work, drilling holes in the basement ceiling, running copper cables through conduit, bolting the conduit to the outside of the building from basement to roof. He lugged lumber and solar panels through a small hatch in the roof and built adjustable support racks so he could change the angle of the panels to capture the most sun. In the basement he connected the batteries, lining them up in series (positive to negative) to add volts and in parallel (positive to positive) to add amps. He checked and rechecked every connection and every wire, then watered the batteries and anxiously waited for them to charge.

While working, Berton sometimes got stuck. He would go to the electrical-supply store with only a vague idea of what he needed, ask questions about DC power the employees couldn't answer, and return home with the wrong part. Flustered, he would then call the catalog companies.

On August 31, 1991, at 3 AM, Berton finished wiring the refrigerator to the battery pack. He turned on a power switch in the basement and ran up the back stairs. As he entered the kitchen he heard the smooth whirring of a motor. He stared at the refrigerator, momentarily paralyzed by a mix of delirious joy and disbelief. Then he bounded down to the basement and worked straight through the night hooking up the inverter.

The following day, in a palm-size notebook, he scrawled, "Refrigerator works all day while batteries are charging. Cools beer and seltzer. IT WORKS!!!" Across the next page he wrote "WOW"

Later he plastered a bumper sticker on the front door of the two-flat: "I get my electricity from the sun."

In mid-1992 Berton and Carney broke up, since he'd gradually come to realize he was gay. They agreed to stay close friends, and Berton moved into the apartment upstairs. Carney had grown more comfortable with the idea of solar power, and she wanted to keep the refrigerator in her apartment. Berton agreed: it would have been difficult to move the 16-cubic-foot behemoth upstairs anyway.

After he moved, Berton continued to work on the system. He wired a circuit to provide solar electricity to the outlet in his living room and plugged in his computer and a lamp. But despite the pronouncement on his front door, he still relied on ComEd for most of his electricity. When fully charged, the batteries in the basement stored only 225 amp hours, enough power to run a 2,000-watt appliance--a hair dryer, say--for only a little over an hour before the batteries ran out of juice. Not that he had a hair dryer or would run it for an hour if he did, but such calculations reminded him of his system's limitations. There were other reminders too. After a few back-to-back days of overcast skies, the batteries would be drained, causing the inverter to kick on and charge them with ComEd electricity. When Berton noticed the batteries were running low, he would unplug his computer and lamp, fearful of depleting the power available for Carney's refrigerator.

Berton dreamed about the day he'd be completely off the grid, when solar power would feed every outlet and every overhead light, when his batteries would store enough power to fill in the long stretches without sun that Chicago winters reliably delivered, when ComEd would serve only as a backup--in case of a major equipment failure or in case he ever rented the apartment to solar-wary tenants. That day, he knew, was far off, since he didn't yet have the money or electrical knowhow to expand his system.

In time Berton's financial situation improved. He raised his fee as a computer consultant and found a regular summer job leading an annual eight-day canoe trip through Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. (He took a tour one year and so impressed the organizers with his understanding of the area's ecology that they invited him back to be a guide.) As Berton's income rose, he collected more batteries and panels, a wind generator, a more sophisticated inverter, and a second energy-efficient refrigerator. To Carney's dismay, he even came home one day with enough one-and-a-half-inch pipe to mount a 13-foot wind tower on the roof.

At the 1995 Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, Berton met Vladimir Nekola, an Argentinean-born electrician who lived in Chicago and produced 4 percent of his own power. He had solar panels on the roof and a retractable 70-foot wind tower in his backyard, near Ashland and Chicago, that once graced the cover of Home Power.

Nekola and Berton quickly became friends, and Berton agreed to trade some of his ceramics for solar and electrical advice. When Berton asked Nekola whether he could run one ground for his wind generator and another for his solar panels, Nekola looked at him horrified. Don't do that, he warned. It could kill you.

Seeing Berton's system, Nekola zeroed in on several electrical-code violations. Berton needed to encase the exposed cables, add a disconnect here, a fuse there. While these violations were safety hazards, Berton was pleased to hear that none of them was likely to endanger his life. He dutifully brought the system up to code.

Last summer Berton started the last leg of his conversion. He hooked up his refrigerator and quadrupled the number of solar panels and batteries. He built his wind tower, but had to dismantle it a few weeks later because the sandbags that held it down had disintegrated in the sun.

The bolstered system produced enough power to meet all of his energy needs. The batteries now stored 1,500 amp hours--enough, he calculated, to get him through 5 to 15 days without sun. No longer reliant on ComEd, he ran extension cords from his one solar outlet to every room in his apartment.

But there was a problem. On sunny days he produced more power than he could use and more than the batteries could store. On such days the voltage meter would rise to 16.2 volts by about 10:30 AM , and the inverter, unable to handle more voltage, would shut itself off. Berton would find himself in the midst of a power outage--and painfully reminded that he needed to invest in a charge controller, an expensive piece of equipment that prevents batteries from overcharging. He would then have to go down to the basement, shut off the batteries' connection to the panels, and wait for the batteries to lose some volts--which usually took hours. After a while he learned to prevent the power outages by turning on lamps and grinding coffee and running his vacuum cleaner and other electrical appliances in the early mornings and afternoons when the sun was moving over the panels.

When someone asked him one day whether he was making his life unnecessarily complicated by producing his own electricity, he responded, "Aren't you giving control of your life to other people?" Part of what drove him, he explained, was needing to be in control of important things in his life. But part of it was also curiosity. "I guess I like to know what it takes to keep me alive, to keep me going. I think most people haven't got a clue what it takes to keep their lives going the way they are. It just gives me more and more power to do what I want." He believed that society put up bars around people from the moment they were born, and as a result they often adopted self-defeating attitudes, assumed they couldn't do certain things. He'd noticed that more and more, when faced with some seemingly impossible task, he would ask himself, What are the obstacles? How can I overcome them? And if it's a cool thing to do, why not try? "I think the more you become aware of the world you live in and the more you become aware about the assumptions you've made about that world, the more you recognize where the bars are. I believe in discovering those bars--knowing that they're there, knowing what they are, and giving yourself a choice of either accepting them or saying no, I don't accept them."

Berton wanted to be free of such constraints, but he wasn't averse to having others do for him--as long as he understood what they were doing and how. For example, he now gladly handed his car over to mechanics. He knew he could do the repairs himself if necessary, but he wanted to spend his free time on the solar system.

In the early evening last July 2, Berton drove into the alley behind his two-flat and noticed a knot of people milling about. He pressed the remote-control device on his sun visor, but his garage door didn't respond. Mildly annoyed, he pressed the remote control a second time. Then someone said the power was out.

The timing couldn't have been worse. He was about to leave for his annual canoe trip and didn't want to leave his car on the street while he was gone. He was running late, and Leif Tellmann, the one person who'd signed up for the trip, was waiting in a borrowed car out front. Then it hit Berton--his power wasn't out.

He grabbed a 100-foot extension cord from his apartment, connected it to the inverter, and dragged it out to the garage. He plugged the motor hanging above the garage door into the extension cord and watched the door lift. His neighbors gawked. It was a glorious moment--the culmination of eight years of work and confirmation that the countless hours of labor and tens of thousands of dollars had been worth it. Every house on his street was without power--except his. Carney watched him gloating in front of the neighbors, "laughing and whooping it up."

On the way out of Chicago Berton, still ebullient, told Tellmann what had happened. Tellmann was impressed. He too often thought about the environmental consequences of his actions, buying green products and refusing to ride escalators. He'd just written his master's thesis in the emerging discipline of ecopsychology about using nature imagery to help patients in institutionalized settings connect to both the nature inside themselves and the larger world.

Tellmann introduced Berton to the term "deep ecology," coined by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess to describe a radical rethinking of industrialized societies' relationship to the earth. Where "reform ecology" advocated stricter standards on vehicle emissions, for example, deep ecology advocated eliminating cars as the primary mode of transportation. Deep ecology perfectly described Berton's own way of thinking. After eight days in the wilderness, he and Tellmann emerged as an inseparable couple.

Not long after they returned, the city went through another ComEd power failure. No longer a "prisoner of ComEd," Berton argued that people who'd chosen to be prisoners had no right to complain. He watched perturbed as the public grew indignant and an outraged mayor took ComEd to task. "It's like, get real," he said one day while working on his solar system. "I guess I don't buy into that philosophy--that someone else is responsible for everything in my life. Power goes off. It's technology. It's not perfect, and it's never going to be perfect." As someone who'd caused a few minor outages of his own, Berton felt some sympathy for the ComEd execs whose heads were on the block. It wasn't as though they'd maliciously sabotaged the grid, he said. "I defend ComEd." Environmental abominations aside, "they have a wonderful system. It's 99 percent perfect--and people bitch at them for the 1 percent that doesn't go right. I mean, what is that?"

Yet Berton liked to remind himself of that 1 percent. He clipped a couple of articles about the summer blackouts and pinned them to a wall in his basement not far from his batteries and inverter.

With Tellmann around, Berton saw his solar system through fresh eyes. Suddenly all the little inconveniences leaped out at him. When he and Tellmann spoke on the phone, the inverter caused an annoying hum. Sometimes the noise interfered with Berton's modem, knocking him off-line; sometimes it distracted them from a DVD movie.

When Tellmann wanted to use an appliance, Berton would hand him an extension cord. When Tellmann reached for a light switch, Berton would hand him a lamp. Berton had got to the point where he didn't have to consciously think about such maneuvers; now he was constantly reminded of them, constantly interrupting their conversations to say, "Uh, that's not solar, Leif." Tellmann was a good sport, though he secretly hated the cords.

Finishing the solar conversion began to take on new urgency. When Berton agreed to open his apartment for the National Solar Homes Tour on October 16, he had a deadline. But the weeks slipped by. He and Carney took a canoe trip to Quetico, and when they returned Berton wanted to spend as much time as he could with Tellmann. Two weeks before the tour Berton realized he didn't even know what parts he needed to build the system he'd envisioned.

That was when Nekola came over and helped him make a list. Berton could buy most of the parts at any hardware store except the charge controller, which he had to order, and the transfer switch and distribution boxes, which Nekola offered to pick up. Realizing how much work there was, Berton started to feel a little panicky. "Can it happen by October 16?" he asked. Nekola assured him it could.

Sometimes, especially on evenings when he had prior commitments, Berton stayed up all night working on the system. He made dozens of late-night runs to Home Depot for forgotten items such as drill bits and lugs. The last round of parts cost him $2,500, more than twice what he'd anticipated. So he was thrilled when Nekola told him that the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs had begun offering to reimburse people for up to 60 percent of the cost of eligible renewable-energy systems.

Nekola dealt with all the AC wiring, the transfer switch (which would allow Berton to switch back to the grid if necessary), and the main distribution box (which allowed solar power to come through all of the outlets and overhead lights). He also replaced old fuses with circuit breakers. Berton installed the new inverter, which would end the interference on his phone lines and computer. He also wired the charge controller, which would prevent the batteries from overcharging by routing excess voltage to a device that would heat the air in the basement. As they worked, Nekola answered Berton's questions and prevented him from doing anything that was dangerous or illegal.

Four nights before the tour they grounded the system to the cold-water pipe. Feeding a stubborn thick cable through a bent pipe, Nekola pushed while Berton pulled, sweating and grunting and swearing.

The following night Berton worked alone until 3 AM, encasing a "rat's nest" of battery cables in corrugated pipe. Finally he began to see an end.

Two days before the tour Berton forced himself to work even though he had a migraine. He wired the ground box, careful not to confuse the positive and negative wires--a mistake that could fry his equipment and possibly him. Periodically he would stop and press on his temples or squeeze a shoulder. He winced as he watched Nekola disconnect his old inverter and rip out some of his original wiring.

By about 9 PM they were ready to program the new inverter, the final step. Berton handed the manual to Nekola, who quickly flipped through it, asked Berton about the voltage limits, and pressed buttons on the inverter. A green light kicked on--indicating that DC power from the batteries was entering it, being transformed into AC power, and traveling out to the circuit boxes. "We're inverting," Berton said. "We can turn off ComEd." If he wanted to, he could even send his excess power back to ComEd through the inverter, and by law the utility company would have to buy it.

Finally Nekola flipped off the breaker switches and lifted the lever of the transfer switch, disconnecting Berton's apartment. "So the entire apartment is now being run by solar," Berton said matter-of-factly. He thought he should be more excited. "Oh, my God--eight years," he said. "It hasn't quite hit me yet."

Berton had finished his solar system with one day to spare. Tomorrow he would clean the entire apartment, scrape peeling paint from the walls, scrub the floor on his hands and knees, box up the extension cords. He would go grocery shopping at midnight and send his friends an E-mail invitation to his "Pull the Plug" party, saying, "The solar electric system is now 100% running and giving me 100% of my electricity. Come on over and have a solar cooled beer, dance to solar powered music, or indulge in some scintillating solar lighted conversations. Stay for an hour or the whole evening, but be here for the plug-pulling! The apartment will be running on Com Ed when you arrive at 8:00 pm. I'll pull the plug at 9:30. After a brief moment of darkness, all will be illuminated by electricity produced during the day from the sun and one kilowatt of solar panels on the roof."

But now Berton wanted nothing more than to go upstairs. He walked into the apartment through the back door, flipped the switch on his kitchen wall, and basked in the glow of solar light--light he and Tellmann would later joke was "warmer and fuzzier," "kinder and gentler" than ComEd's.

Berton raised his arms toward the ceiling and bellowed, "This is all mine! This is solar!" He picked up the phone and listened to the dial tone. "No hum!"

"All these lights," said Nekola, in mock derision.

"What a waste!" Berton replied, sounding serious. "Look at all this light."

Nekola seemed slightly worried. "Enjoy it!"

"I am, I am," Berton assured him as he walked through the apartment, grinning from ear to ear, flipping switch after switch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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