Dennis A. Andrejko has friends on the West Coast who question the whole idea of heating a home with sunshine in the gloomy winters of Buffalo.
He's chuckling all the way to the bank.
The University at Buffalo architect's passive solar design for his Amherst home helped gain him a lot of new living space for next to no new heating bills. It's a testament, he said, to the potential of solar power, even in the North.
"It is cold here in the winter -- we all know that -- and I think it's cause for celebration as opposed to just hibernation," the UB architectural school professor said.
"And it is cloudy in the deepest part of winter, but there is a long heating season, and it's in the transitional seasons, the fall and springtime, that there's a substantial amount of sunshine," he added. "That's where it really helps. Just because December and January are frigid and cold doesn't mean you shouldn't try to do something -- because you can."
As part of an effort to showcase solar potential, Andrejko will be among a handful of Western New Yorkers opening their doors to the public Saturday for the American Solar Energy Society's National Tour of Solar Homes.
Hours will vary by location, and interested visitors will be asked to call a central number for the Western New York Sustainable Energy Association to get directions to a home close to their neighborhood -- an effort to conserve travel-related energy, as well.
The homes range from those with some retrofitted solar panels to installations designed from the ground up.
Andrejko has a little of both. Rooftop solar panels heat his pool, but the home itself -- featured a year or two ago on the cover of Solar Today magazine -- is a design effort that increased interior space by 50 percent while adding only 7 to 8 percent to the fuel bills.
"Essentially, the building becomes the energy system," he said. "It's a nice place to be. It doesn't shout, 'Solar!' "
Andrejko, author of a book on "Passive Solar Architecture: Logic and Beauty," insists that solar designs have to be more than just practical.
"The buildings have to be logical -- they have to work technically," he said. "But they also have to be
beautiful -- they have to serve the (aesthetic) needs of the user."
This year's tour of local homes comes as President Clinton promotes a "Million Solar Roofs Initiative" he announced June 26 at the United Nations.
The Utility PhotoVoltaic Group, an international association of 89 electric and energy companies exploring solar power, this week announced support of that initiative through a third round of solar-business venture financing.
The round adds another $5 million in Department of Energy funding to an $11 million program that already has leveraged $43 million in private investment.
The group includes the New York Power Authority, New York State Electric & Gas Corp. and Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., as well as Ontario Hydro. Proposals for "TEAM-UP" project funding are due at the group's Washington office in mid-January, with winners announced in March.
Downstate legislators in New York last year also tried to pass a law that would let homeowners sell excess electricity from residential roof panels to utility companies, reversing their electric bills.
While that push stalled, the New York State Energy Research and Development Corp. is backing several solar and wind power demonstration projects.
"It seems like we're getting more and more attention on the need to conserve energy and use solar," said Joan Bozer, a former Erie County legislator.
Mrs. Bozer, who helped arrange a recent teleconference on alternative energy, said those interested in this weekend's tour can call 881-1639 for a taped message from the association that will provide directions to a nearby solar home.
"We're trying to raise public consciousness about solar and other alternative energies," Mrs. Bozer said.
"Solar is here, it's competitive and ready to go," she added. "Solar works, and they can be attractive homes."
For Mr. and Mrs. J. Michael Collins, bringing a little sunshine into their home has been a "very good" experience.
Their Town of Tonawanda home, one of the open house sites Saturday, has solar heating panels on the south-facing roof of an addition. Windows also let the southern sunlight warm a tile kitchen floor that slowly releases the heat back into the home at night.
"It's really fairly simple," said the president of WNED-TV, Western New York's public television station. "It's a passive installation -- we have a couple of panels, I think they're about 6 feet by 3 feet, on a south-facing rear roof."
The couple installed the panels several years ago, as part of additions that boosted the size of their home by about 75 percent. They also replaced an older furnace with a new energy-efficient model at the same time.
"Between that and the solar panels, we noticed very little difference in our gas bill," Collins said. On sunny winter days, he added, "the vents will be open and the fans will be whirring away."
"Where it's extremely helpful is in the shoulder seasons, in the spring and the fall, when you get a lot of sunny days," he said.
"It also makes you feel good. You can't solve the major (environmental) problems, but you can do something to make the world a little better place."