Friday, December 29, 2006

PV: Strategies for Starting Small and Expanding Later

I would have liked to set up a PV system large enough to meet all of my household needs, but I quickly learned that a system of that size costs more than I was prepared to spend. Instead of saving money and waiting, I decided to start off small and add to the system over time.

While there are some advantages to building a big system all at once, there are also advantages to starting small. When an ice storm knocked out power to my home for a week, I was glad to have the modest amount of power my small system provided. If the idea of starting small appeals to you, here are two strategies you might consider:

System #1:

The least expensive option consists of one or more solar panels, a charge controller, batteries, and an inverter. Such a system can be built for less than one thousand dollars. If your needs are limited to lighting, and perhaps a radio, TV and computer, this system might be just right. You can always add to the system later, and add a refrigerator, freezer, microwave oven, and other appliances to the load. You’ll have to keep an eye on the system, switching to another power source when your batteries are depleted. For backup power and battery charging when the sun doesn't shine, you might consider a small gasoline-powered generator.

System #2:

Using an intelligent controller, you can build a system that runs your household on battery power until the battery voltage drops to a set point. At that time another source of power takes over. This source of power can be a generator, or the utility grid. If you rarely experience grid power outages, the utility grid might be your best option. If utility-supplied power is unreliable, you might choose a generator instead. Automatic switching between power sources is possible. The beauty of this system is that it uses all of the power your system can generate before switching to more costly power sources. None of the PV-generated power is wasted. As you add solar panels, your savings increase accordingly. Because of the sophisticated equipment required, this option is significantly more expensive than the first one.

At some point in the not-to-distant future I believe that the demand for solar panels and equipment will skyrocket. To avoid supply-and-demand cost increases, I chose to install a small system rather than to wait until I could afford a larger one. I’ve benefited from this system in many ways, and haven’t regretted my decision.

Happy New Year!


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

My First Year Accomplishments

My involvement with renewable energy began one year ago when I installed the first solar photovoltaic panel on my roof. This year I’ve been able to reduce my use of utility-supplied electricity and natural gas, and I’ve benefited from my alternative heat and electricity sources during two lengthy power outages. In addition to lowering my electric and natural gas bills, I also contribute less to global warming. In other words, I’m moving closer to a carbon-neutral lifestyle. It is also good to know that I’m using less of the earth’s irreplaceable natural resources.

This is a summary of my accomplishments in my first year:

  • I've replaced most of the incandescent bulbs in my home with compact fluorescent (cf) types.
  • I've installed a small off-grid solar photovoltaic system, and have upgraded it several times. While the system offsets only a small portion of the utility-supplied electricity, it also serves as an emergency source of power. Recently, when an ice storm caused an extended power outage, the system was used to help heat my home as well as to supply electricity for lighting, cooking, and communications. It also provided a portion of the electrical requirements for a chest freezer, preventing food from spoiling.
  • I've installed a corn-burning stove, and am using it to reduce my use of natural gas for heating. As a result, I've lowered my heating costs, and was able to keep my home warm during a recent extended power outage.
  • I've replaced several windows in my home with energy-saving ones.
  • I've replaced an older TV with an energy-efficient flat-panel one.
  • I've removed many of the phantom loads in my home.
  • I've converted an attached garage to a family room. This project included the addition of insulation, and the replacement of a garage door with an energy-efficient bay window. This room is a work-in-progress.

As I continue to add to the PV system, my savings will continue to increase. Because my electricity provider plans large rate increases over the next few years, I expect bigger savings in the future. At some point in the not-too-distant future, everyone will need to reduce their carbon emissions if this planet is to survive. It’s a good feeling to be in the forefront of this effort, and I look forward to continuing this important work. It’s the right thing to do.

Solar John

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ameren Wants to Stick it to You. Here’s What You Can Do

According to a story in the Belleville News Democrat today, owners of homes and businesses that depend upon electric heat can expect to see their power bills soar by 90 percent or more when AmerenIP rolls out its new rate plan on January 2nd. At the same time, owners of gas-heated homes can expect to pay an extra $1.00 per day under the new plan. David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, says “It’s bad for everyone, but it’s really bad for people with electric heat.”

After reading that article, the cost of solar photovoltaic panels and bio-fueled stoves suddenly doesn’t seem so high anymore. Stove-related chores are less of a burden now that the potential for saving money is greater. Interest in alternative sources of electricity and heating is already growing, but I expect a surge as rates begin their steep climb. For that reason, I’ll continue to provide information on this blog for those interested in pursuing an alternative path. Here is an overview of some heating and electrical system alternatives.

Heating your home with corn:

I chose corn as an alternative source of heating for several reasons. Based on market prices at the time, corn was the least expensive heating fuel. Although corn prices have gone up recently, I believe that corn is still the least expensive heating fuel.

Once you’ve decided to heat your home with corn, the next choice will be to choose a particular stove or furnace. I chose a fireplace insert (considered a stove), in part because I don’t have room for a furnace. I chose a 70,000 BTU model because I wanted the ability to heat my entire home. Had I settled for a smaller one, I would have only been able to heat one or two rooms.

Installation was easy, requiring only a small hole in the side of my house for a clothes-dryer-like vent. Corn is available in bags, but it is more economical to buy it in bulk, perhaps a pickup truck load at a time. In addition to hauling and storing the corn, I spend about 15 minutes a day filling the stove’s hopper, and maintaining the stove. A vast amount of information is available at, so I’ll refer you to that site for additional details.

Solar photovoltaic systems:

If you’re considering an alternative to grid-supplied electricity for your home, you’ll first need to decide upon the type of system. Your choices are; off-grid, and grid-tied.

An off-grid system is a stand-alone system that uses batteries to store power generated by the sun’s rays during the day. A grid-tied system also generates power from the sun’s rays, but surplus power is applied to the power grid for credit. The user relies on power from the grid when the sun doesn’t shine, but the surplus power generated by the photovoltaic array offsets the cost of that power. No batteries are necessary in a grid-tied system.

Here is a complete list of the components for an off-grid system:

One or more solar photovoltaic panel(s).
Mounting hardware for the panel(s).
At least one 12-volt battery.
A charge controller.
A 12-volt dc to 120-volt ac inverter.
Wire and wiring accessories.

Next, you’ll need to determine how much power you’ll need from the system. You can cut your needs considerably by replacing inefficient lighting and appliances in your home. This, of course, will allow you to get by with a less expensive system.

If you’re lucky enough to have an unobstructed south-facing roof, you have an excellent spot to mount your solar panels. Panels can also be mounted on a pole, or other ground-based fixture.

Because this is an overview, I’ll stop here. Check for previous posts on this blog for additional information. You’ll find a list of websites that provide in-depth coverage of topics covered here. Be sure to return to this blog often, and I appreciate your comments.

Solar John

Monday, December 11, 2006

How I Survived the Great Ice Storm of 2006

The ice storm of 2006 resulted in the longest electrical power outage that I’ve ever experienced. To make matters worse, this outage came at a time when temperatures often dropped into the single digits. The need to produce heat, coupled with short days, made this a worst-case scenario for my alternative systems.

For 7 days I used my corn-burning stove to heat my home, and my electrical power came from a small gas-powered generator and a solar photovoltaic (PV) system. While many of my neighbors were forced to stay with relatives or in motels, I remained in my home and was comfortable. I was able to watch TV, prepare food, and I had plenty of light. My wired telephone service was out, but I was able to use my cell phone and keep the batteries charged. I didn’t use my energy-hogging refrigerator, but I ran a chest freezer to prevent frozen food from spoiling. Food that needed to be refrigerated was kept in a cooler outside.

Because I kept my home warm, I didn’t have to worry about pipes freezing. I’m not sure if my neighbors were able to avoid that. Some of them used fireplaces for heat, but they were ineffective without power for blowers to circulate the heat throughout the house.
Others used kerosene or propane heaters, but the cost of fuel was outrageous. I burned about 75 pounds of corn per day at a cost of about $6.00. My generator used about 2 gallons of gas a day at a cost of about $4.50. Considering the extreme cold, this is about what it would have cost to heat my home using utility-supplied electricity and natural gas.

This power outage was a great learning experience, and as a result of it I’m planning a major photovoltaic system upgrade for next year. I want to greatly reduce, if not totally eliminate, the need to use a generator. I’ll be glad to get rid of the noise and smell, and also to eliminate the need to go out in the cold to refuel it every 7 hours. Hauling and storing significant quantities of gasoline are additional drawbacks. In addition, the power that it supplies is not clean and steady, causing streaks and a jittery picture on the TV. On the other hand, power from my solar PV system’s inverter was clean and steady.

To put the PV system to use it was only necessary to connect extension cords and flip a switch on the inverter. Family members are reluctant to set up and use the generator when I’m not home, but have no problem using the PV system.

Considering the duration of the power outage, some people must have felt the same frustrations that Hurricane Katrina victims felt. The Katrina disaster should have been a wakeup call, demonstrating that we may have to wait a long time for help in the event of a disaster of this magnitude. We should have learned to take responsibility for our own comfort and safety instead of relying on someone else. PV panels are expensive, but if they prevent big motel bills, broken plumbing, and spoiled food perhaps they’re worth the cost. Generators and kerosene heaters are another option, but if you choose to do that you must make sure you have a fresh supply of fuel. In the event of an extended outage, the cost for fuel will be high. And, in the case of a disaster, it may be difficult to replenish fuel supplies locally. Some generators are tied to the natural gas supply lines, but that does not guarantee an uninterrupted fuel source in the event of a disaster. Solar panels, securly mounted in an area where they are not likely to be damaged by tree limbs, are the best option in most cases. I'm certainly glad to have mine.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Great Ice Storm of 2006

Due to a severe ice storm, this is day five of an electrical power outage at my home. It wouldn't be so bad, except that the outside temperature has been between 9 and 35 degrees. To keep warm, I'm powering my corn-burning stove with my solar PV system part of the time, and a small gasoline-powered generator the rest of the time. I'll post details of this experience later, but for now.......
Gas for the generator: $4.50 per day
Corn for the stove: $6.00 per day
Staying warm when it's 9 degrees outside and the power grid fails: Priceless!