Pastor plans Appalachian outreach with solar panels

Nonprofit helps homeowners install cost-saving devices


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PHILIPPI, W.Va. -- Ruston Seaman is proud to show off the early version of the solar panels built for his renewable energy mission: two banged-up, discolored shower doors held together by crusty caulking.

"Even if it's chipped a little bit, it still makes electricity," said Mr. Seaman.

John Prusa, the brains behind these solar panels, fastened the doors together so that the power-capturing cells stay off the glass, harnessing sunlight that can be used to generate electricity or heat water.

But no matter how much a set of jerry rigged solar panels might lower the electric bill, discolored shower doors and caulking from Walmart present a problem when it comes to persuading people to put them on their homes: They're ugly.

So now Mr. Seaman and Mr. Prusa shop for better aluminum, better solar glass, even better caulking to build the solar panels they want to make a staple in this Appalachian town two hours south of Pittsburgh. Their organization, New Vision, is a nonprofit affiliated with Mr. Seaman's church and has plans to outfit 10 homes this spring in a town where 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

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Supplies must still come cheaply -- the church doesn't have the money to spend and the families who get the panels don't either -- so they shop for discolored inventory, watch for bankruptcy filings that lead to liquidations, think of companies with ample scrap heaps.

"My gut says Alcoa has aluminum stock," said Mr. Seaman.

They've also invented an entire mini-economy on the ridge here that recirculates money among families receiving panels and allows currency to come in the form of volunteer hours.

As these men see it, solar panels eliminate three major expenses: electricity, gas and heat, and pay for themselves in utility savings in less than 10 years.

Mr. Prusa's hobby of invention joined with Mr. Seaman's community outreach to create this new system of ministry, one that sees renewable energy as a means to lower utility bills in Appalachia, and ultimately a means to independence.

Their system is as unlikely as the paths they took to this town of 2,700 people: Mr. Seaman hitchhiked here as an aimless teenager who accepted a ride from a black revivalist preacher, and Mr. Prusa chose the quiet countryside after fleeing a ditch-digging fate in Communist Europe.

Now New Vision wants to build a national network of community teams that bring solar panels to the unlikeliest of places -- towns where renewable sources often are seen as anti-patriotic or as a way for tree-hugging elitists to pat themselves on the back.

All of this Philippi story -- the microfinancing, the national network, the business savvy -- started with the unlikeliest concept of all: that these two men could go 30 years without getting to know one another in this 31-square-mile town, until one day when Mr. Seaman picked up his daughter from a home where the electric meter spins backward.

Energy independence

John Prusa was a tinkerer. When a triple bypass grounded his piloting career, his hobby of engineering renewable energy sources became "a major obsession," he said.

With his son and a stepladder, Mr. Prusa outfitted his home with solar panels that capture the sun's rays and pipes that heat water with it. He converted his cars so they run on vegetable oil left over from fast-food friers. He powers a Jacuzzi with solar panels.

"When the gasoline went from 89 cents to 99 cents, I knew we were in deep trouble," he said. "And that's when I decided I'm going to be totally independent, energy-wise."

Mr. Prusa's father in Czechoslovakia was a Baptist minister, an occupation that predestined the son to a life of ditch-digging in the oppressive state. He fled to America in 1976.

"That independence, breaking off the system that I was born into and raised -- there was no way out of it," he said. "You could not become independent."

His energy inventions started going up eight years ago and eliminated electric bills and trips to the gas station, but it only served his house on the hill and the few neighbors he could convert.

That changed when Mr. Seaman, an acquaintance who briefly met Mr. Prusa while a student at nearby Alderson-Broaddus College, stopped to pick up his daughter from piano lessons given by Mr. Prusa's wife in the summer of 2009.

Mr. Seaman took one look at the solar panels and the Lord spoke to him again, he said.

Renewable energy sources, cheaply made and installed by neighbors, could help the community he's dedicated his life to.

Mr. Seaman first heard of Philippi when the town name was scribbled in a Bible someone gave him in Texas. Sometime later, a black revivalist preacher named the Rev. Frank Peoples picked him up in South Dakota and said he was driving to Philippi.

Mr. Seaman took that as a sign to take the passenger seat, riding into town 32 years ago. He would soon start working under Rev. Peoples and become the chapel's senior pastor, raising a family in a house up the street from the church.

Now Mr. Prusa, the brains, and Mr. Seaman, the handshake, are the partners behind New Vision, which is affiliated with Peoples Chapel.

Families who receive solar panels pay for them with two currencies: money and time.

One home can cost between $7,000 to $10,000 to outfit, with trees to clear and supplies to buy. Families pay for the panels with some of the savings they start to see on their electric bills each month. The money goes into a general community fund that finances more solar panels on more homes.

"Once 10 families start paying back, there's enough for Family Eleven," said Mr. Seaman.

Ten families are already slated to receive the panels, and already nine mission trips are planned this summer for groups from Pennsylvania and West Virginia to come and help install more.

In addition to those upfront expenses, outfitting a home also takes manpower; Mr. Seaman calls it Philippi's version of Amish barn building.

To pay back their neighbors for their time, families must volunteer by either installing solar panels somewhere else or putting in community time at the church.

Mr. Prusa printed "dollar bills" that are exchanged as currency for the volunteer hours.

Panels in coal country

The Chestnut Ridge community that surrounds the Peoples Chapel and now hosts New Vision is a drive up from the town found down the hill, which has the Hardee's restaurant and the youth center and the Mountain Treasures boutique.

Training already has begun at New Vision for leaders from other communities who want to bring similar solar power systems to their town. Mr. Seaman foresees a national network of solar panelists that he could leverage to obtain cheaper rates on raw materials (like that Alcoa aluminum).

On a recent weekend, groups from Detroit, southern West Virginia and Yoakum, Texas, came to learn the New Vision model, which trains a solar panel technician, project leader and volunteer coordinator in every church.

The group from Yoakum was worried they'd be cast as tree huggers. A leader from southern West Virginia said she's already seen push back from coal country.

"Folks think that perhaps conserving energy is not very patriotic in West Virginia," said Michelle Connor, executive director of Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity in Franklin, W.Va.

For the past decade, her organization has built Environmental Protection Agency-friendly homes, some with solar panels. Resistance doesn't usually come from the families who need the help -- they're facing utility bills that can be quadruple their $150 monthly rent.

Instead, it comes from the local and state officials who see a hidden agenda in renewable energy.

"People automatically assume it means we're anti-mountaintop removal or that we're anti-coal," she said.

Coal remains a huge presence and employer in Philippi, but New Vision's clients can't afford not to try an alternative, however unusual Mr. Prusa's panels or Mr. Seaman's mission might look here.

"Energy is energy," said Mr. Prusa. "Once you have it captured, you can do anything with it."


Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.


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