20 June 2011

SOLAR ENERGY SERIES - Part II Fukushima Wakes Me Up & A False Start.

All through the winter of 2010/2011 I tried to imagine what life would be like without electricity. For lots of things I could figure out ways to make do. I used water heated on the top of the woodstove to do the dishes and I cooked meals on it too.  Well, cooking may be a bit of an exaggeration. Mostly I warmed things up but I did fry and scramble my eggs.  But, I proved to myself I could cook on it if necessary.

I went out in ten-degree temperatures and hauled water from the creek. I made a little hauling device with a piece of rope and some carbiners so I could carry two one-gallon jugs across my shoulders. It was pretty tough slogging. No big deal for a couple of gallons of drinking water but hauling any kind of volume would be downright toil. At twenty below, well, I might have to ration the water I had ‘til the weather got better. Koty likes stinky stuff anyway. Actually, I decided I would just bring in snow and let it melt. It would be a slow process as it takes an about ten inches of snow to make one inch of water. On the other hand, time would be something I would have plenty of.

Koty "assisting" with water hauling experiment.

My little experiments led me to believe there were many things I could handle fine but there were two that gave me considerable pause.  As mentioned in Part I the days here are quite short. By the winter solstice we’re going on sixteen hours of darkness. Because I live with just my trusty pooch I rely on my computer and television for companionship and diversion particularly in the winter when outside activities are limited.  I do much of my photo editing and archiving in the winter months, a task that provides me with unending hours of entertainment and busy work. Without power there would be no computer, no television and no Blue Ray. No nuttin’.

I am also an avid reader. I conducted my own blackouts in order to experiment with lighting. I fired up my oil lamps and candles an whilst the effect was romantic I could tell that an extended period with only this kind of lighting would begin to wear on my eyes and mind. I’m amazed that everyone wasn’t blind from reading by oil lamp and candles in the days before electricity. Trying to read for long periods by such dim light was not a pleasant thought. I even put my headgear camp light on to read. It works but about one or two nights of it and reading starts losing its allure.

So, as I experimented and pondered life in the dark I started seeing myself as the feminine version of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I think I’m a pretty hearty gal but I honestly don’t think I could maintain my sanity for more than a couple of weeks under these conditions. It would make solitary confinement look like spring break at the Ritz. Bottom line; without electricity in winter I would really be in a pretty tough situation.

On March 11, 2011 we learned of the 9.0 Earthquake at Fukushima. The earthquake and ensuing tsunami were bad enough but the real shag nasty story was the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant. The earthquake and tsunami were local tragedies but the nuclear plant situation blew right into my backyard and presumably fell right on my pointy little head.

I have to admit that throughout my life I have been ambivalent as regards nuclear energy. I honestly had no opinion one way or another. As I followed the Fukushima incident and learned more about nuclear energy and spent fuel rods, I began thinking nuclear was a truly unenlightened way for humans to meet their energy needs. The more I thought about it the more I thought about solar energy, so clean, so natural, so sensible and the more I warmed to the idea of a solar energy system.

Since moving to Montana wilderness I have begun saying I would like my tombstone to read, “She left no trace.” Finding a way to use solar energy I decided was one more way I could remain true to my life goal. Solar was a way I could reduce my footprint upon the planet just a tiny bit more. Before I knew it I was on a mission to figure out how to make solar energy a part of my life.

Right off the bat there were obstacles. Living in rural Montana one has to be willing to live with the fact that getting things done often isn’t easy. First, I looked locally for a solar installer but the only one we had had moved south because there just wasn’t enough business. Next I tried down in the Flathead. I could only find one company down there and it was in Whitefish.

I called the company in Whitefish and two guys came out and we discussed the possibilities. They assured me that there was enough light in winter to get solar power. They also went on and on about the 30% Federal tax credit and the money I would save on my electric bill. First of all I would do the project with or without the tax credit and the amount of money I would save, that’s just baloney. Everything I have read says solar costs at least twice as much as what I pay my electric co-op which is $.06/kWh. I tried to make it clear I was not particularly interested in the economics of the project. I was most interested in having my basic needs met in the event of a prolonged power outage, particularly in winter. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be tickled pink to get the credit but it wasn’t a selling point for me and I got sick to death of hearing about it. The guy clearly never took a selling 101 because he never listened to a thing I said. And, I found that very frustrating.

Shortly after their visit they sent proposals for a 1.4 kW system $24,078 and a 2.7 kW system $30,000. Getting twice as much power generation for only an additional 25% outlay seemed a no-brainer. I had no idea how these quotes stacked up. Anyway you sliced it the cost was steep. But, then there was the 30% tax credit, which would most assuredly help.

A little Internet research turned up all kinds of numbers, as far as what a system would cost. I thought I would also check out the component makes and models to see how others reviewed them. The parts they would be using did pass muster but I also found out the Whitefish guys were using a heavy hand when it came to marking up the parts. Whilst checking out the products I came across Simpleray a solar supplier and checked up on some of the component prices. I saw the Whitefish guys were marking things up 40 to 50%, which seemed a bit steep.

By this time, however, I was really game to construct a solar power system. So, I asked the guys to come up again to discuss exactly how the system would be laid out. At that time I realized they had some ideas that would not gel with mine so I basically told them how I wanted the layout to be and all they had to do was tell me if it was feasible.

After agreeing to the layout we went in the house to discuss business. I mentioned about the pricing I had found on the Internet and they agreed to knock a little off some of the components. Meanwhile, I had become convinced even a 2.7 kW system wouldn’t give me more than a kilowatt-hour per day in winter leaving me about a five kilowatt-hour shortfall. The solution to that concern was a backup generator. A propane generator was added to the system and the 2.7 kW generation plant was now estimated at $37,214.

I was told that in order to go ahead with the project I would need to fork over $32,000 up front. I was stunned. The amount was equal to nearly 90% of the total cost. I let it go for the time being. I asked if they had some kind of contract and was told they would e-mail the contract to me. When I got the contract I took one look and immediately got that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. There was no mention of a contract price just the initial, upfront payment amount. In theory, there was no limit as to what the project could cost.

All things considered I knew it would be unwise to go ahead with this company. At this point they had completely lost my trust. I learned long ago, when something doesn’t feel right I just have to back away and I did. I was pretty despondent because I had no idea how I was going to get my project done.

Stay tuned for Part III as I accidentally become my own general contractor.

©Kinsey Barnard

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