When Brenda, Larry and Emily Cameron walk downstairs in the morning, they look out the window for the sun, but not because they just want to check the weather.
It's because they have a house and small farm near the Cambria-Indiana county line, 1.4 miles north of Strongstown to power.
"If we wake up and the sun's out, we say, 'It's a solar day,'" Brenda Cameron, 57, said.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
The Camerons — Larry, Brenda and their daughter, Emily, get a portion of their electric power from solar panels mounted the roof of the barn (behind them) next to their home (upper left) in Pine Township, Indiana County.
Larry Cameron, 57, had solar panels installed on his property last summer, and his family has since reaped the benefits.
But it's not just about saving money, Larry Cameron said, but about adding to the family's already environmentally and economically conscious lifestyle.
"We built the house in 1981, and I was always interested in solar or wind power, but I wasn't sure the best time it was economically feasible," said Larry Cameron, who runs a disc jockey service out of his home.
The Cameron's neighbors had a sales representative from Astrum Solar, a Maryland-based residential solar provider, visit their home, so Larry Cameron and his son, Chris Cameron, 32, decided to observe the sales pitch. And they were sold.
Larry Cameron's home is equipped with 75 panels on the side of his barn, while Chris Cameron has 49 panels on the top of his house.
Each panel is 185 watts, 62 inches long, 32 inches wide, 1.5 inches thick and 34 pounds.
Both of their houses are situated in fields, making their property suitable for collecting solar energy.
Since Astrum installed the system last summer, Larry Cameron's solar panels have produced about 11,000 kilowatt hours, which he said is "meeting his expectations."
A little over half of the power generated for his home comes from solar power. A solar meter outside the house records solar production, which he monitors.
That's because Larry Cameron is a number cruncher.
He checks a website for solar panel-users to track what the solar panels are producing each day, total solar panel production over time and what energy is being put onto the grid.
He jots this information day each day on a calendar at the entrance to the kitchen.
Even before the panels installation, he calculated the heat loss so he knew energy wasn't being wasted after the large investment.
Astrum used 30 years worth of historical weather data to provide an estimate of energy production in the best spot on the property.
The decision to install the panels came down to economic feasibility, which meant grants and rebates that fell into place, providing the family with the best deal.
"It's a good time to buy," Larry Cameron said.
The state began the Pennsylvania Sunshine program in 2009, which would offer rebates to residents that install photovoltaic and solar thermal systems. But the program is running out of money to distribute for rebates.
The federal government also offers tax credits as part of the package President Barack Obama initiated as part of a broader energy plan. Despite waning support for the subsidies amid the expiration date at the end of last year, lawmakers still decided to extend the federal tax credits to 2016.
Some companies, such as Astrum, offer a leasing program in which homeowners can put down as much or as little money as they want, but leasing will yield smaller savings.
Michelle Waldgeir, the vice president of marketing for Astrum, said that it's these incentives that have made solar panels more enticing. She said that by the end of 2010, using the most recent data, Pennsylvania made it into the top 10 states with installations due to the incentive program the state provides.
At first, the installation of the solar panels on Larry Cameron's home would have been $55,000, but after the rebates and federal tax credits, the cost came down to $26,000.
For the first few months, the Camerons didn't have to pay any money up front, but now the bill for Larry Cameron is about $80 a month. He said the bill to operate his gentleman's farm used to be about $240 a month . In months when the sun is out the most, the bill can be even lower.
The Camerons' biggest concern was whether they would see a payback soon. But they figure that at the rate their solar panels are going, they will be able to see a payback within six years.
Astrum keeps track of the energy production and consumption. Homeowners can see a credit on their account for energy that's sent back.
But just because the sun is powering the family's electric needs, that doesn't mean they consume more energy.
Larry Cameron's family heats their home with wood from dead trees. Brenda Cameron still hangs her clothes outside or on a wire rack in her home.
Everybody is sure to turn off the lights when leaving a room. And they use LED bulbs because they consume less energy and last longer than incandescent bulbs.
"I'm being more energy efficient because I'm aware of the energy production," said Chris Cameron, who runs Cam-Ron Video Productions, a full-service video production service, out of his home.
Efficiency and conservation comes naturally to the Camerons. Brenda Cameron picks up trash on the ground when she sees it. When the family sits down for dinner, no food goes to waste. Outside, Brenda Cameron has a greenhouse for growing cilantro, lettuce and arugula.
Ideally, Larry Cameron would like to look into investing in a wind turbine to expand on his venture into alternative energy.
The benefits of the solar panels have outweighed the costs.
"To me, it was not an expense," Larry Cameron said. "It was an investment, an investment in our future."