Electric power to the people!

bus with "off the grid" painted on the side

The old dream of going off-grid has changed into today's reality of using the grid as your own battery. Photo: besighyawn via Flickr.

It’s a gorgeous day full of singing birds and sunlight. Beautiful, streaming sunlight. Soon the photovoltaic system that added some aggression to my passive solar house in the mountains of western Virginia will be one year old, the time of reckoning.

Getting off the grid has always been nirvana for 1970s back-to-the-landers like me. With net-metering – a 21st century update of the dream – I am still connected, selling excess electricity in summer when the sun is high, and buying electricity at night and in winter. The grid has become my battery, although my home system includes batteries for three sunless days of essential services if the grid is knocked out: water pump, stove, freezer, and playing old movies through the storm.

In rural Appalachia, self-sufficiency is the traditional way of doing things.

Hope, change and plug-in EVs

Electricity has become a beacon of hope in the smog of our energy crisis. With President Obama’s promise to get plug-in electric cars on the market by 2015, home-grown electricity could help wean Americans from foreign oil, which is largely used for transportation.

But our largest source of electricity is coal, which is also the largest culprit in environmental damage of all kinds, from mountaintop removal mining to acid rain to climate change.

Nuclear plants have waste issues, huge costs overruns and terrorism target potential. Natural gas plants are better but not by much. Even renewable sources can have unacceptable impacts: Industrial wind plants in the East destroy forests, while industrial solar arrays in the West destroy deserts. Even when well-sited, the thousands of miles of new transmission lines needed to transport power from green sources destroy everything in their path. What can a compassionate conservationist support?

Distributed generation, that’s what.

On-site production of electricity (called distributed generation, or DG for short) is the cheapest, quickest, fairest way out of the energy conundrum. Site specific generation from small-scale solar, wind, geothermal, and biofuels installations, combined with the new administration’s energy conservation/efficiency programs, offers virtually unlimited resources for stimulating local jobs aimed at literally empowering local communities. From the widespread interest expressed in my own solar system, it seems that there is enormous pent-up consumer demand.

The paradigm of centralized power plants has been rendered obsolete by technology and terrorism. Consider how much stronger our nation would be against disasters both natural and criminal if schools, hospitals, community centers, businesses, nursing homes, farms, mobile homes, houses and apartment buildings across the country made enough electricity to pump drinking water and refrigerate food.

Americans haven’t enjoyed that kind of independence since they drank from dippers and packed pond ice in sawdust for the summer icebox. Decentralization of electricity brings a new perspective to the old rallying cry of democracy, “Power to the People!”

Home power plant nation

It will mean redesigning distribution lines and decoupling fixed costs from electricity rates to entice utility companies, traditionally hostile to DG. It will take new tax incentives, interconnection standards, building codes, and educational programs for electricians, builders, businesses and homeowners. It will take fleets of people at town, county, state, and federal levels all conspiring to allow consumers to take control of power sources.

What better use of stimulus money could there be?

Maybe I’m not the one to be talking about economics, which is based on the idea that people always act in their own best interests. My solar system contradicts that basic principle. At current electric rates, it will take me 45 years to pay it off. My own personal back-to-the-land trip will be well underway by then. Rates will undoubtedly go up, but buying this system was economically unsound and I’m proud of it, because I love to confound economists.

Taking responsibility for one’s own environmental impact is what much of the talk about “greening” is really about. Studies show that when people see direct consequences of their actions — say, turning off a computer for the night — they change their behavior and use significantly less energy.

It happened to me. After my new system was installed I checked the meter often for the fun of watching it run backward. And it did, through spring and summer. Now, it’s showing 820 kilowatt hours used from the grid in eleven months — roughly what an average American household uses in one month. At the end of a year, my utility company will pay me for any excess production.

I don’t really care about that, but I do want the meter to reach zero by next month to give me 100 percent solar electricity for the year, so – I’m powering off, goodbye!

— Chris Bolgiano, original article at Bay Journal News Service.

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  1. says

    I live by the Straight of Magellan, in Punta Arenas, we have much wind and tidal energy, but our politicians sold the electricity companies to privates, and alll they want to do is keep the herd paying, son there’s no use of this sources, they burn natural gas that’s becoming scarce. Now they want to dig five coal mines in Isla Riesco, about 70 miles from here, and ship it north for thermoelectrical plants, many steps on the wrong direction, killing a big part of Patagonia in the way. We are trying to avoid this, calmly and without hate. I went to an electician’s store the other day, he has a system that combines a smalll water turbine, solar panels and a wind mill, I want to buy it but it costs five million pesos, a lot for me (about US$ 8.500), do you know if I could get another similar equipment for less $$$$$$. Sursum corda!!!!!!!

    • says

      Dear Sn. Gibbons,

      Thanks for your comment on my essay on solar. I am very sorry to hear of the backward policies of your politicians, but things are very similar here wherever Republicans are in power, because they belong to the oil, coal and gas industries. I do think you can find solar panels at a better price, but i am familiar only with local sources here in VA. I would suggest you search the Internet, and perhaps contact someone in the Solar Energy Industries Association (www.seia.org). Best of luck, and many thanks for your forward-thinking plans! -chris

  2. says

    Sn. Gibbons –

    Small-scale wind turbines can be constructed from salvaged parts (car alternators, washing machine motors), as well as building your own solar arrays from individual PV cells. Much information is available at http://www.builditsolar.com, and much more through various internet sources (google searches can pop up some great stuff, including complete sets of free plans). I know there are several tutorials out there for stringing together PV cells into custom photovoltaic arrays with no more complex tools than a soldering iron and pliers.
    Our personal focus for micro-generation, which may not be feasible based on your particular location in Patagonia, is on micro-hydropower. There are several models for extracting mechanical and electrical work from small sources of flowing water, from streams and brooks to rain-gutter downspouts and storm drains.
    Cheers! – Echo

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