Frank Molnar's one-and-a-half-acre spread in the hills of Orange is perched above the suburban equivalent of a tree line, just beyond where the housing tracts stop. It still feels like old OC up here—clapboard house, vegetable garden, horse, dogs, chickens, terraced vineyard, even indigenous plants. As long as you're not checking out the view, anyway. Because then you feel like Moses looking down from Mt. Sinai, arms full of fresh-baked Ten Commandments, while the paved-and-polluted world below My Humps-My Humps-My Humps a golden calf—people shitting where they eat for as far as the eye can see.
But Molnar isn't just nostalgically indulging a lost past. He's also presenting a working model for a simpler, cleaner and more-sustainable future. That's what the solar panels in his vineyard and the bio-diesel still in his back yard are for.
"Last year, my entire electricity bill was just $102 and I pay about 60 cents a gallon to power my cars," says Molnar. "I'm pretty much self-sufficient in terms of fuel, and the environment is hardly affected at all."
Molnar's not bragging. He insists that nearly everybody can do the same, although something about his rough-hewn handymanity—deeply tanned, sinewy arms and the various home-improvement projects scattered about his property—makes you doubt whether you could.
"Aw, c'mon, I'm a retired art teacher," Molnar says encouragingly. "I've been interested in alternative energy for a long time. I just finally got my shit together."
The four banks of solar panels that sprout from poles in the middle of his vineyard came from a kit, he says, and generate 2,500 watts of non-polluting power. The buy-in was $22,000—half of it rebated by the state—and payback on that investment will come sooner and sooner as electricity bills rise higher and higher.
"The system is interactive, which means my excess electricity goes back into the public grid," says Molnar. "My meter runs backward during the day, it goes forward at night and at the end of the year I pay the difference."
The barrels, tubes, bottles and filters that transform used vegetable oil, methanol and lye into biodiesel fuel cost a few hundred dollars at a home-improvement center, he explains, and power his 1994 Dodge pickup, his wife's Jetta and the old Mercedes he bought to test the fuel for awhile before risking his everyday vehicles.
"I get the cooking oil for free, used, from a Chinese restaurant," says Molnar. "I buy the methanol and the lye, which is where the cost comes in. I mix them for an hour at 125 degrees, let it settle out overnight, and by next morning, it's ready to take us where we want to go. I make about 10 gallons a week."
Perhaps anybody could do this, but Molnar may still have an advantage: his 32 years teaching art at Santa Ana College. Because one of the biggest obstacles to alternative energy sources seems to be the resistance to their aesthetics.
Molnar considers his solar panels—their spacey straight lines and shiny black surfaces—things of beauty. "I get all goosey just looking at them," he says. "But my neighbors say they're ugly. To me, they're sculpture. I think they'd look even better in my front yard. But my neighbors would kill me."
The biodiesel maker—strung together like a Rube Goldberg contraption beneath a lean-to next to an out building—can seem similarly off-putting to people with conventional sensibilities.
"They think it looks like a meth lab," laughs Molnar. He's sometimes amused by the negative reactions, but more often, they confuse him, especially since the accepted means of making and transmitting energy—refineries and power lines—aren't exactly easy on the eyes. "And how about the war in Iraq?" asks Molnar. "That's pretty ugly."
The recoup-on-investment question kinda bugs, too.
"People don't ask about payback when they buy a new car," he points out. "They consider things like color, power and what kind of radio it has. They buy it on a whim. But when it comes to these new technologies, everybody demands no-cost guarantees they don't get on the old ones."
Nonetheless, Molnar concedes that the versions of alt-energy sources that he has installed in his sprawling compound may not be completely transferable to the smaller living spaces that most people inhabit.
So we climb in his car and drive a mile down the hill, into the tightly ordered quarters of suburbia, to see how his neighbors, Joe and Diane Woollett, have squeezed the same technologies into a tract home. In this case it's an Eichler home, kind of appropriate considering Joseph Eichler envisioned his bright, boxy modules as the homes-of-the-future when they were built all over Southern California in the early 1960s.
Sure enough, the Woolletts' biodiesel operation occupied a much more tidy space—approximately 5 feet wide and 7 feet tall—along the wall of a two-car garage that housed an old Mercedes and a late-model VW Bug. Their solar panels lie unobtrusively atop their nearly flat roof, connected to an electric meter that is steadily spinning backward.
But . . .
"I've had a tough time getting the biodiesel operation to work properly," acknowledges Joe. "I still have some wrinkles to smooth out. It takes time, you know."
"Actually, it's not currently in production at all."
Woollett hasn't been able to consistently strain a fuel that is clean enough to run through his vehicles. "One time, I had to take my car in to get it cleaned out," he says, "and that cost me a couple hundred bucks."
But he's not close to giving up.
"No way," he says. "There is a little trial and error involved, but I have faith that ultimately—and very soon—I'll come up with the right mixture. A lot of this is experimental, remember. We're are on the front lines of technology."
The solar panels, on the other hand, work wonderfully—and inexpensively.
"We've been powering our home with the panels for three years," says Woollett, "and our electricity bill is, well, zero. Before that, I was paying close to $800 a year, and I'm sure it would be even more now."
The slight downside is that the Woolletts' solar panels are not generating at maximum capacity—basically because their neighbors were no more welcoming of the new technologies than Molnar's.
"They said if they could see any of it," Diane recalls, smiling, "they would shoot us."
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Consequently, the Woolletts moved the panels to a place on the roof where they are hidden and perched at a 13-degree angle, rather than the optimum 30-degree angle.
"We love them, anyway," says Diane, practically meditating on the backward-spinning meter—even as her washing machine does a midday load.
"I think everybody should do this," says Joe. "It's a way of living responsibly. And cheaper."