09 June 2011

SOLAR ENERGY SERIES - Part I The Journey Begins and Fizzles

A number of people, upon learning of my interest in constructing a solar electrical system for my home,  have asked that I let them know how it is all going. I thought I'd just include the story here for those who are interested. I don’t know how many parts there will be to this series because I'm literally in the middle of the project. The "parts" will be interspersed with my regular posts as they develop and I have time to put things down in writing. This first part is how I came to be doing an alternative energy project.

About eighteen months ago I started to wonder how I might get along if for some unknown reason we had a complete grid failure which might last for a prolonged period of time. The world, somehow, seems not to be as predictable as it once was. The economic, political and social landscape seems uncertain and I sense that things could happen in the future for which there is no precedence in my lifetime, 1949 to the present.

Where I live we have an electric co-op and the company is very much a part of the community. Most often when I have expressed my concerns about a grid failure the response has been “Oh, Lincoln Electric would never let that happen”. For some reason it isn’t even on people's radar that something could happen that would be beyond the co-op’s control. It seems almost universal that people have a blind faith that someone can and will always bail them out if trouble strikes. Call me a doubting Thomas but I don't believe it for a minute and I am too much of a control freak to leave my fate in the hands of others.

As regular readers know, I live in the far north of northwest Montana very near the Canadian border in the Kootenai National Forest. As I tried to imagine life without electricity I concluded that if it were to happen in the summer it would be no problem at all. I could carry water from my spring and I can’t stay awake until it’s dark. Spring and fall would be a little more challenging. But, winter, now that would be a real challenge, sixteen of darkness, no lights, no videos, no computer and just Koty to keep me company.

The days are extremely short and extremely cold. The cold I could handle as I heat my home 100% with a wood stove. Carrying water from the spring at ten below is another matter. In a power outage my house well wouldn’t pump and that’s what I would have to do, carry water in buckets. It is possible to put a manual pump handle on your well and pump the water by hand. Only trouble is, the well can only be so deep and mine is way beyond the limit.

So, I started to think about having an alternate source of energy available in case of emergency. My first idea was to have a generator. I even went so far as to trade one of my photographs for a nearly new 8,000 kW Rigid gasoline generator. It wasn’t until after I had gotten the thing that I began to consider its limitations.  The two main limitations being the generator runs through an eight-gallon tank of gasoline in eleven hours at 50% load and gasoline storage issues.

I set about trying to figure out how I could get the Rigid generator to meet my needs. By my personal definition an extended outage would be one that lasted more than a week and I want a power source that could get me through at least a month just to be safe. In your run of the mill power outage eleven hours would get you through. To power you through and extended outage would require a lot of gasoline storage and storing gasoline in this climate is problematical.  Gas has a tendency to go stale very quickly at any temperature and is highly combustible. I went as far as trying to locate a two hundred gallon tank, which I thought, if I were very careful could get me through a month. I had no luck.

I also contacted a local electrical company to see what was involved in connecting the generator to my house panel. It would have cost under a thousand dollars to connect the generator but there those nagging gasoline consumption and storage problems. The electrician suggested that a propane generator would be a better solution. And, of course he just happened to be an Onan authorized dealer. He wrote me a proposal that was close to $9,000. I thought wow that’s a lot of dough!

I briefly looked into solar but I kept hearing it would never work in this climate and at this latitude, too short days and too little sunshine in winter. I liked the thought of solar but I pretty much wrote it off as impractical for my location and conditions.

At this point I was beginning to lose interest in the whole idea. Before long it was fall and time for an extended photography shoot at Yellowstone. By the time I returned from the shoot it was time to turn my attention to getting the ranch ready for winter and all thoughts of emergency power went the way of the dodo bird.

©Kinsey Barnard

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