Snug and smug with solar power: keeping on the sunny side of the storms

Solar House

A shift toward distributed solar is a win-win on every front for America and Americans. Photo: mjmonty via Flickr.

So hate me.

All around me, millions of people are losing electric power as trees and other inappropriate objects crash down on powerlines. It doesn’t matter anymore what storm it is. At least three recent storms of apocalyptic dimensions have slammed into the east coast, and more record-breaking ferocity is being predicted.

Traffic lights don’t work. Stores can’t process credit and debit cards. Gas stations can’t pump gas. Roads are blocked and relief supplies can’t get through. Favorite reality TV shows go unwatched as the real world intrudes.

But we don’t miss a show, the husband and I, although in actual fact we usually watch old movies on DVDs as storms thump outside. During the searing heat after last June’s notorious wind that caused power outages for weeks, we sat in the breeze of our little fan. During the various winter blizzards that loaded lines with snow and ice, we sat in the warmth of our gas furnace.

And not even Superstorm Sandy turned off our TV.

Power to the solar people

Instead, time after time, for a few hours to several days as the entire region was paralyzed, the husband and I simply went about our business mostly – an important caveat — as usual.

Powered by seventeen grid-connected solar panels on the roof and eight sealed lead-acid batteries in the basement that instantaneously take over when the grid goes down, we watched news, listened to radio, took a quick shower and read in bed, to the hum of the refrigerator-freezer.

Solar panel costs have plunged by 80% in the past five years. What the industry calls the “soft costs” of installing and connecting photovoltaic panels has dropped roughly 30% since 1998, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.  A 30% federal tax credit applies until 2016, and some states offer additional tax incentives.

When Walmart goes solar, you know it’s cheap: the world’s biggest box store now boasts the country’s biggest business capacity at 65,000 kilowatts, with Costco second and Kohl’s Department Stores third. Maybe such stores can serve as emergency shelters in future storms, using solar electricity to provide drinking water, food and ways to cook it, sanitary disposal of wastes, shelter against extremes of weather, and lots of toys to keep dangerous boredom at bay. They could provide a form of community security unique to our consumerist era.

But I prefer a less centralized approach better suited to the American spirit of independence. Thousands of panels in suburbs and exurbs, neighborhoods and communities, on urban condos and office buildings, farms and businesses, schools and hospitals, retirement homes, community centers, gas stations and quick stops, would make our communities resilient in the face of disaster.

Solar declaration of independence

Producing your own power is true independence, but all power has its limits. The limit of solar power lies in batteries, which are still expensive, large, and heavy. Designing a solar system to sustain your household when the grid goes down is a lesson in needs versus wants. These become clarified when, for example, you’re thirsty in a flood, or hungry with a refrigerator full of decaying food.

So, what do you give up to have your basic needs met at home for a reasonable price during the Duration? Running a heat pump or central air conditioning. Cooking on an electric stove. Bubbling in a hot tub. Any appliance requiring 240 volts rather than the usual 120 may draw more electricity than is practical to supply.

But you can design a system that will run a household water pump, a gas or oil burning furnace, refrigerator, lights (preferably CFs or LEDs), radio, computers, and TV. You can recharge cell phones and iPods. Not necessarily all at once, but if you time your activities in rhythm with the sun and allow the batteries to recharge, you can not only survive but gloat over your foresight.

Batteries can also be recharged by a gasoline generator if stormy weather persists or night drags on. This uses far less gasoline than if the generator ran the house directly. A gas-powered grill can cook emergency meals. A kerosene heater can keep you from freezing. Multiple backup systems spread out a safety net.

Changed behavior

One lesson to be learned from our recent storms is that buildings should be built better and in better places. Buildings of all kinds use nearly 70% of the electricity generated in this country. Solar panels now offer a practicable step toward more sustainable communities with buildings that make, use, and keep some of their own power on site.

Granted, we’re lucky that hurricanes and tornadoes haven’t ripped off our roof.  That could still happen, and would put us back to the old stand-bys of bottled water, canned sardines, and the kindness of strangers. In solidarity with those reduced to such a plight, we light a candle as we watch the ongoing coverage of the latest storm on TV.

– Chris Bolgiano, Transition Voice

Reposted from  Bay Journal News Service. Chris Bolgiano has written or edited six books, several of which have won literary prizes.  Visit www.chrisbolgiano.com

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