Part 1: One family's valiant quest to kick the oil habit--and how you can (try to) do it, too.
BY BEN HEWITT
Photography by Ben Stechschulte
Published in the December, 2005 issue.
Generators Won't Solve the Oil Crisis
When Penny and I bought our parcel of land, we weren't thinking about energy independence. We were just trying to scrape by. She was doing day labor on a farm and I was splitting my time between repairing bicycles and banging nails. We were bunking in a one-room cabin that had no running water other than what came through the roof during storms. Besides the glorious ridgeline views, we chose our parcel because it was cheap--and that was largely because it wasn't connected to the electrical grid. Estimates for bringing power 1200 ft. from the road to our planned house site ran in the neighborhood of $15,000--approximately $14,000 more than we had in the bank. So we dropped our remaining $1000 on a 3000-watt Honda generator and filled a 5-gal. gas can, enough for about 8 hours of juice.
Ironically, we were now more oil dependent than our neighbors who were connected to the grid. Although 70 percent of the country's electricity needs are met by burning fossil fuels, primarily coal, that number doesn't hold in Vermont. Thirty-five percent of the state's juice is generated by the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, while another third comes from Hydro Quebec, a Canadian supplier that operates 53 dams throughout the province. Perhaps we'd have gotten a few kilowatts courtesy of the wood-fired power plant in the small Vermont town of Ryegate.
We weren't helping the fuel crisis any, but at least we had power. We plugged in our saws and started building.
Solar Cells Are for Tinkerers
Six years--and hundreds of gallons of unleaded--later, we'd saved enough for an upgrade. I installed four 285-watt panels on a homemade rack about 100 ft. from our house, facing them due south and angled at 45 degrees to maximize their exposure to the sun during the short days of winter. (I connected the panels to the house using buried wires.) Ideally, solar panels are mounted on racks that can be adjusted according to the season. But since those are expensive, and since we have ample power in the summer, we set up ours for winter.
While people imagine solar cells crowning rooftops, that's a solution for yard-challenged suburbanites in warmer climates. Here in the north country, if you have the room, it's far better to place the panels within easy reach. Snow and ice can build up on them, and failing to clear off even a small portion of the surface cuts output sharply.
That's about the only maintenance the panels demand, but the batteries must be checked every few months to ensure adequate water levels. With proper care, they'll last five to 20 years, depending on the quality.
Our system has been utterly reliable--and we've smugly enjoyed electricity at times when the larger region suffered blackouts. But it's just a matter of time before something in the photovoltaic system malfunctions. And when it does, it'll be my problem to fix, not the utility's.
The Grid Is Good
Our neighbor Lee Richards recently installed a 3-kilowatt photovoltaic system on his grid-connected house. Richards points out that his system has an important advantage over ours. "We're basically using the electrical grid as our batteries and generator," he says. "That eliminates a lot of the cost and hassle. When it gets cloudy, we still have power, without having to run an engine. And if something goes awry with our solar system, we have instant backup."
Here's another benefit: Since installing his system this summer, Richards hasn't paid an electric utility bill. In fact, he's been sending electricity back to the utility company. Vermont and 38 other states require utilities to compensate homeowners for power they produce; the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 will extend such rules nationally. This winter, when Richards starts using the utility's electricity, he'll be drawing on credit he built up during the sunnier months.
Energy Isn't Free
The sad fact is that all that hardware is still not enough to meet our electrical needs. In fact, there's a good chance that as you're reading this, we're listening to our generator. (The old Honda died, and we now have a $650 5500-watt Generac.) During the short days of November and December, we run it about 10 hours each week.
Wind Power Beats Solar
First, we'll add more solar panels. We also plan to install two solar hot-water collectors to preheat our water before it gets to our propane-fired tank. Last year, we burned 556 gal. of propane to heat our water and cook our food. Solar collectors should cut this total nearly in half, for an annual savings of around $600. The savings could even lead us to warm our floors with the luxurious radiant-heat system we installed years ago but stopped using because of the expense.
I'm even more eager to take on another project. Our efficient, Energy Star-rated refrigerator accounts for nearly half our electricity load--partly because we're so stingy in other areas. The fact that we're running our generator to cool our food in a region where below-freezing temperatures persist into June has long irked me. (Remember: We live in Vermont.) That's why I'm working on a cold-box design that would utilize a thermostat and a low-watt, 12-volt fan to maintain a fridge-like internal temperature of about 38 F. I'm also planning to convert a chest freezer--via an external thermostat--into a refrigerator. According to energy conservationist lore, such a design demands only 10 percent of the power required to run a conventional, upright fridge. We'll see.
Read PM's Energy Family Blog written by Ben Hewitt.
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