First, Tom Engel and Jan Deligans slashed their electricity usage. Then the couple switched to solar power. Now they get a check for nearly $50 every month. By Patricia Mertz Esswein, Contributing Writer February 4, 2010 What inspired you to seek energy independence? A $300 electric bill we got hit with in 2001, after we bought our house in Santa Fe. We thought, Something has to give here. We became aware of our energy use and cut back gradually.What did you do? We replaced all our light bulbs with compact fluorescents and used a watt meter to measure how much electricity our appliances used. We gave up our clothes dryer, a hot tub and a garage door opener, bought a smaller refrigerator and replaced the electric treadmill with a NordicTrack. How do you heat and cool? Our house was designed for passive solar, but we had to learn the right times of day to open and close windows and shades. On our windows and skylights, we use solar-blocking screening outside and insulated Roman shades inside. We don’t use nonsolar cooling or heating, except for burning a small amount of wood during the coldest part of winter. Sponsored Content What difference did your conservation efforts make? We went from using an average of 700 kilowatt-hours a month to using 180. Advertisement Santa Fe is perfect for solar panels. Why not go that route first? There’s no point in paying for a solar-power system when you’re wasting electricity -- it’s much cheaper to conserve first. And after conserving, you won’t need as large a solar-power system. How big is your system? We installed a 2-kilowatt system with nine panels. That would typically cost $18,000 to $20,000. But we did the installation ourselves, which saved money. Plus, we got a federal tax credit for 30% of the system’s cost and a 10% credit from the state. Are you off the electricity grid? No, we’re “grid-tied.” Any extra energy we produce goes back into the local power grid. How has it paid off? Our monthly electric bill is zero. Plus, the power company pays us for the energy we send back to the system. We get a check for about $46 a month. We expect our system to pay for itself in about nine years -- less if the power company raises rates.