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BU Carpenter: From Gas Guzzler to Green Machine

Rooftop solar panels power Mike Wagner’s home and commute

Meet Mike Wagner, BU’s greenest super-commuter.

A year ago, the 52-year-old University carpenter made some pretty radical lifestyle changes—he outfitted his home with solar panels and bought a hybrid SUV. Now he charges his vehicle off the sun and drives 60 miles to and from work daily, leaving a zero carbon footprint behind.

It’s cutting-edge behavior, particularly for a self-described Trump supporter and a one-time climate change skeptic. Here’s a look at Old Mike versus New Mike and some of the ways going green did—and didn’t—make a difference for him.

1. Old Mike loved his red Ford S-350 diesel pickup truck, a gas-guzzling beast that could hold a plow or tow his ATVs and tools. It was big, loud, and powerful, he says, and his sons loved riding in it.

New Mike misses his truck, but is adapting. He drives a Mitsubishi Outland PHEV (plug-in electric hybrid vehicle), a “green” SUV with towing capacity. It’s much lower to the road, and he sometimes forgets that it’s on because it’s so quiet. But it gets the equivalent of 72 miles per gallon of gas, which is real money in New Mike’s pocket.

Side view of the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV with driver door open.The dash panel of Mike Wagner's Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV hybrid vehicle showing the energy flow of the vehicle while in motion.
Cockpit view of Mike Wagner driving his Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV hybrid vehicle.

Wagner misses his giant pickup truck, but his new hybrid SUV has regenerative brakes and heated seats and steering wheel and gets great mileage.

2. Old Mike spent $450 a month on gas.

New Mike spends $35 or less a month on gas. He charges his hybrid at home in his garage. An inverter transfers and converts energy generated from his rooftop solar array to his SUV, charging the battery in three hours and giving him enough juice to get him to BU.

Once he’s at work, New Mike parks at a charging port for electric cars. There are four of these stations on the Charles River Campus, and two at the Medical Campus, with more expected. For 25 cents an hour, or $20 a month, he can recharge his vehicle for his ride home.

Mike Wagner readys the solar system transfer box to charge his hybrid SUV.Mike Wagner inserts a charging plug into his Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV hybrid vehicle.
Detail view of the solar charging plug inserted into the plug of the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV hybrid vehicle.

Wagner powers up in his garage. (He also chops his own wood and uses it to heat his house.)

3. Old Mike lived large.

He and an adult son reside in a 3,400-square-foot neo-Colonial in Taunton, where the house air-conditioning and a heated pool would result in an outsized electric bill that exceeded $300 a month.

“The Old Mike didn’t really think about it,” he says.

New Mike still goes big. But after consulting with industry experts, including Associate Vice President for University Sustainability Dennis Carlberg, last year he bought a 56-panel solar array from MassRenewables, Inc., in Bellingham at a cost of nearly $54,000.

It’s a major change, but New Mike wanted to cash in on his home’s extremely sunny location. And various state and federal government incentive programs and tax write-offs are helping bring the sticker price down by more than half, he says.

And because he produces more energy than he uses, he benefits financially. The Solar Renewable Energy Certificates program is currently paying him about $330 for every 1,000-kilowatt hour of energy he produces. He’s on track to earn more than $6,000 through the program this year.

And then there’s his monthly electric bill, which has dropped to—wait for it—zero. That helps him pay off the 10-year loan he took out to buy the solar panel system. When he is done paying it off, in 2028, the system will still have another 15 years under warranty.

Mike Wagner looks up at his home's rooftop solar array from the back yard.View of the rooftop solar array on Mike Wagner's garage.
Front view of Mike Wagner's solar powered home.

Wagner’s house in Taunton gets light nearly all day (when the sun’s out), a feature he’s turned into an asset.

4. Old Mike was skeptical of claims that solar energy could be affordable or easy.

New Mike acknowledges that there have been unexpected glitches.

Late last year, both inverters mysteriously stopped metering his sunlight intake. MassRenewables technicians eventually determined that repairs to his home’s Wi-Fi system had burned out the circuit boards in the inverters, which had to be replaced. New Mike says that was done at no charge and that he was also credited with the power he would have produced during that two-month period.

But he’s very happy with his system so far. He says he can typically spot a system malfunction using an app on his phone called SolarEdge, which collects real-time data from his rooftop as well as daily, hourly, and monthly data on his output.

New Mike also likes watching the electric meter on the side of his house on sunny days, because it actually spins backwards as his solar panels collect energy to offset his usage.

The solar pv system shutdown switch and meter for Mike Wagner's home solar system.Solar transfer box in Mike Wagner's garage.
Mike Wagner holds his smartphone showing his home's solar system dashboard app.

Wagner’s solar panels connect to two inverters in his garage; one of them has a nozzle that charges his hybrid. He monitors his energy production and usage on his mobile phone using an app called SolarEdge.

5. Old Mike was a conservative-leaning talk radio fan who loved muscle cars. (He has a 1970 Chevelle in mint condition parked in his garage next to his hybrid.) He was not an environmentalist.

New Mike is a conservative-leaning talk radio fan who still loves muscle cars, but who also has adopted a greater consciousness about living sustainably. Does that mean he’s an environmentalist?

“No, I’m not an environmentalist,” New Mike says. “Well, OK, maybe a little bit.”

Mike Wagner poses in front of his solar system transfer box with his fiancée Katrina and dog Harley.

Wagner and his fiancée, Katrina DeMatos, and their dog, Harley, enjoy all the perks of suburban life, leaving a fraction of the carbon footprint of most people.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megwj@bu.edu.


8 Comments on BU Carpenter: From Gas Guzzler to Green Machine

  • Jon on 02.21.2019 at 6:58 am

    I’m a truck fan myself, there’s a start up company, Atlis Motor Vehicles, developing a 100% electric, full sized pickup with 4×4.
    Good on Wagner for making these changes. All of his trade-offs seem to be worth the rewards (including keeping more money in his pockets). Hopefully we can all make similar changes and make a bigger impact in reducing emissions.

  • Dennis Carlberg on 02.21.2019 at 7:04 am

    Congratulations, Mike! Nicely done. A great example of how an investment now can save money over time – and make a difference by reducing emissions.

  • John C. Briggs on 02.21.2019 at 7:22 am

    Well done Mike.
    Sometimes that labels we put on ourselves really don’t help us in life.
    If solar and plug-in vehicles save us money, they just make sense, no matter what label you put on yourself.

  • Helen on 02.21.2019 at 9:08 am

    Great story! well done, Mike. #itswhatyoudo

  • Kat on 02.21.2019 at 9:46 am

    Nice work Mike! These are really huge changes to make, congrats. Hopefully more will follow suit :)

  • Yubo Dong on 02.21.2019 at 9:47 am

    Wagner is really a role model in practicing sustainability. What a impressive story. Can’t imagine how the world climate is going to be like if most people produce their own electricity using solar panels on their roof of houses and use “green” vehicles.

  • Mary-Jane Doherty on 02.21.2019 at 3:18 pm

    Mike is an inspiration true! But I’d also like to send a shout out to Megan Woolhouse for structuring the article so well! Old Mike/New Mike. Brilliant!

  • Nathan Phillips on 02.21.2019 at 11:34 pm

    This story made my day. Way to lead by example, Mr. Wagner!

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