HORSESHOE BEND, Idaho It will take a special kind of homeowner to live in contractor Ken Olson’s new subdivision overlooking a bend in the Payette River. For them, using electricity will mean harnessing the sun.

The homes at ”Solar Summit” won’t rely on increasingly costly energy from electrical lines. Instead, Olson’s first house gives Idaho Power Co. a chance to showcase its radical plunge into ”photovoltaic generation.”

It is the nation’s first major investor-owned utility offering solar power.

Just as many Idahoans who live away from populated areas use satellite television receivers, they now can generate their own electricity through Idaho Power’s leased solar hookups.

”What that basically does is force the people who buy lots here to think about how they’re going to build a house, how they’re going to cool it, how they’re going to heat it,” said Olson, a partner in the PMA of Idaho construction company in Boise.

”It limits those people who will live here. We knew that, but it also brings out those who want to try a little different lifestyle, use solar power and alternative building techniques and materials.”

Homeowners who now depend on hydroelectric dams or fossil fuel-burning power plants can build their own solar system with existing products or go with the Idaho Power plan, Olson said.

The first home he is completing is truly innovative. Following the lead of architect Michael Reynold’s ”Earthship” in New Mexico, Olson has built the walls out of old automobile tires, linking them and pounding about 300 pounds of dirt into the center of each to secure and insulate them.

The earth maintains a temperature of about 55 degrees. To warm the house to 72 degrees or more, Olson has added passive solar windows angled to allow the sun’s rays to warm the stone floors in the winter without overheating the house in the summer.

”Most of these homes have a wood stove or a fireplace they use for show, but they seldom really need it,” he said.

The walls on the ”tire house” will be stuccoed to give it a Southwestern or Moroccan look. Olson has built a long, rambling concrete planter for house plants and vegetables inside, with strategically placed windows to help regulate the temperature.

”It’s definitely a hand-built house. It makes it much more comfortable, much more livable,” he said.

While the conventional homes that PMA builds in Boise Olson calls them ”dinosaurs” run on 200-amp electrical systems, the Solar Summit home requires only 50 amps for the well pump, lighting with energy-efficient bulbs and other minor uses.

Batteries store electricity generated during the day for use at night.

”When we bought the subdivision, we asked Idaho Power if they wanted to get involved,” Olson said. ”They thought we were a little crazy but said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’ We cooked up a deal and got into being the first demonstration project for a solar-powered house.”

The utility has received state regulatory approval for a ”solar tariff” under which the utility will design, build and maintain solar panels leased to homeowners, said John Wennstrom, Idaho Power energy services engineer.

Dan Gallagher of the Associated Press
Aug 23, 1993