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Self-help idea: put sun to work

"One of our primary goals is not to talk about solar energy, but to actually give people hands-on experience." Barbara Brandt, founder of the Urban Solar Energy Association (USEA) in Somerville, Mass., is talking about one of the nation's latest energy-saving ideas: solar" barn raisings."

Just as when farm families used to gather to help a neighbor erect his barn, on a given weekend urban volunteers -- senior citizens, young adults, and children in the Boston area -- are getting together to build solar porches, greenhouses, and wall collectors.

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The idea, sponsored by the USEA, is to give urban dwellers a first-hand look at present solar energy possibilities.

Not only do volunteers learn how to put up a solar collector, they also learn how simple a solar project can be, USEA's Brandt says.

Several of these "barn raisings," for example, have been installations of solar porches. With $25 to $30 worth of materials, volunteers can enclose a porch with removable sheet plastic, enabling it to trap heat and save on fuel during the winter.

USEA barn raisings have tackled more sophisticated projects too, such as solar greenhouses and wall collectors. Since fall 1979, more than 400 people have participated in the voluntary effort. The ranks of USEA, meanwhile, have soared from a handful to 800 members.

Although Greater Boston has more than 350 solar installations already, more solar demonstrations are needed, says George Schnee, energy coordinator for the Greater Roxbury Development Corporation. "Solar does work. There's no question about it."

With help from USEA, the development corporation is fitting a six-unit brick building in Roxbury with six solar collectors. The barn raising is especially important, he says, because median annual income there is only $6,300.

"For the community of Roxbury, solar energy and energy conservation are vital ," Mr. Schnee says. "People are spending up to 40 to 50 percent of their incomes on energy. It's not unlikely for some people to spend $2,000 a year. For some it's $3,000."

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"It's very important for people to see how they can save energy," he says. Besides the volunteers, students of a technical high school also are involved. They are prefabricating the collectors so they can be quickly installed at the site.

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