Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Renewable Energy Project Progress Report

It was approximately on today’s date, two years ago, that I first decided to install solar panels on my roof. This plan evolved into an effort to become more self-sufficient, and then to a mission to eliminate my use of fossil fuels altogether. And although I have a long way to go, I’ve made significant progress toward my goals. The following paragraphs outline my progress:

PV System Upgrades:

As finances allow, I continue to expand my PV system. I now have 4 solar panels on my roof, 420ah of battery capacity, a 60-amp charge controller, and an 1100-watt pure sinewave inverter.

Using the PV System on a Daily Basis:

The PV system is now used to power a chest freezer on a daily basis. The resulting reduction of my grid-supplied energy use eases the load on a coal-fired power plant, reduces my electric bill, and is consistent with my goals to use less fossil fuel and to become more self-sufficient. As I continue to enlarge the PV system, I’ll add additional appliances to the solar-powered load.

The Corn-burning Stove:

I installed and began using a corn-burning stove in 2006. By using the stove I’ve greatly reduced my use of natural gas, cutting my home heating cost at the same time. The money I save on my heating bill is used to help pay for PV system upgrades.

Energy-saving Lights:

I’ve replaced nearly all of the incandescent light bulbs in my home with energy-saving compact fluorescent ones. Having done that, I noticed a reduction of my electric bill.

Home Improvements:

I’ve added insulation and replaced old windows with energy-efficient ones.


I’ve replaced my old refrigerator with an energy-star-rated one. Although my new refrigerator is larger, it uses about 65% less energy than the old one. I've also replaced two televisions with energy-star-rated TV's.

Growing Food and Fuel:

I've significantly enlarged the size of my garden over the past two years, and preserve more of what I grow. I have successfully grown tomatoes indoors, and I've grown a small amount of corn that can be used as fuel in my stove.

My Blog:

I include my blog as an accomplishment for several reasons. I hope to inspire others to do similar work. When they do, everyone benefits. Not only do readers comments show that I’ve helped others, they are also my opportunity to learn from them.


I’ve made significant progress toward my mission over the past two years, and I now have a good emergency power system as a bonus. When grid-power fails, I have electricity and can generate heat if necessary. I’ve investigated electric vehicle technology, and am preparing to purchase a PHEV when they become available. My work and my research will become even more relevant as gasoline prices continue to climb.


Friday, November 16, 2007

I Burn Corn to Heat My Home

If you visit this blog frequently you know that I supplement my home heat by burning corn. The corn-burning stove is part of an overall strategy to reduce my use of fossil fuels, and to become more self-sufficient. The stove uses electricity for the blowers and an auger motor, and my photovoltaic (PV) system supplies that energy if the grid is down. My stove must be lit manually, and will not relight itself if the fire goes out. While this is somewhat of an inconvenience, it also keeps the power requirements of the stove low, making it possible to get by with fewer solar panels and batteries. And although the stove doesn’t have a thermostat, it does have individual controls for the corn feed rate and for the room air blower motor. When properly set, these controls help to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature regardless of the outside temperature.

I buy shelled corn in 50-pound bags, and use the stove when the outside temperature drops into the 30’s. I usually start the stove in the evening and stop using it mid-day as the outside temperature rises. This is my second season with the stove. Here are some details from last winter:

I purchased (and burned) 2 ½ tons of corn.
My natural gas bill for the heating season was $524.97
My natural gas bill for the same period, one year before getting the stove, was $1140.71
Because I burn corn, I cut my natural gas bill by $615.74
For this period my cost for corn was: $397.45
My net savings was $218.29

People sometimes ask me if the extra work involved in heating with corn is worthwhile. I believe it is. I’ve calculated that corn-handling and stove-related chores take about 10 minutes per 50 pound bag of corn. Or to put it another way, these chores took about 15 hours during the entire heating season. If I divide my time by the money I saved, I conclude that I’ve saved about $15.00 dollars per hour. I call that worthwhile. And, for a variety of reasons, it’s likely that my savings will dramatically increase in the future.

Some say that burning a source of food is immoral. I disagree. Blowing up mountains in order to harvest coal is immoral. Since that coal is used in power plants, purchasing electricity from those power plants is immoral. Any step taken to reduce energy consumption is a step in the right direction. Solar panels, compact fluorescent lighting, energy-saving appliances, recycling, and alternative heating and cooling are a few of the steps you can take to do your part.

Is burning corn immoral? I will ponder that as I sit in front of my stove on a cold winter day.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Another Renewable Energy Myth

I’ve heard it said that it takes more energy to create a solar panel than the panel will produce in its lifetime. That’s absurd! Here are some facts:

A 100 watt solar panel can produce about 400-watt hours on a sunny day.

In one year, that single panel can produce about 146 killowatt hours.

The life expectancy of a solar panel is more than 20 years. In 20 years, that single panel can produce almost 3 thousand kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to prevent 6,600 pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. Source: National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL). Keep in mind however that these figures are for a solar panel that is in service everyday, used to its capacity. An underused panel, one on an RV that is only used a few weeks each year for example, will not measure up over its lifetime.

And, for the benefit of anyone still skeptical, consider this:

It’s better to use fossil fuel to manufacture a solar panel than to just burn it, and still have the problem.