Winds of Change Newsletter, December 2009 See sidebar for table of contents
Kicking the Coal Habit in WV - Solar Power Is A Reality
by Mary Wildfire
Solar power may sound like a great idea, but it isnt practical unless youre rich or so many people think. But many ordinary West Virginians know otherwise.
OVEC member Ron "RD" Dean sent OVEC staffer Vivian Stockman an e-mail when his grid-tied solar electric system came on-line. "Im giddy with excitement!" he said. "Just watching that meter run backwards, having AEP owing us for electricity, was just too funny. We produced more electricity today than we would use in three days of normal usage!"
Vivian didnt have time to check out his system and those of some of the seven off-grid households in RDs Lincoln County neighborhood, so I volunteered, with the extra motive of hoping to learn something that might prove useful to my mate, who is now setting up our own system in Roane County. Thus I spent a long, sunny Saturday running around with OVEC member Kate Lambdin, looking at RDs new on-grid system and the off-grid systems, all of which had first been installed in the 1980s, and then upgraded over the years.
First, we went to the ridgetop home of Dave Moore. His system is off-grid and he has free gas, which makes it easier to go solar his heating, cooking, water heating and refrigeration are all accomplished by gas. But he also has a television, a washing machine, a vacuum cleaner and lights, among other things. This system has been operating for two years.
Dave began his off-grid life in 1982 with a tiny array powering one radio; now he has six 125-watt panels for a total of 750 watts, with eight batteries to store the power. Dave set up this system himself in 2007, spending about $8,000, while knocking about $2,000 off his federal income tax, thanks to solar tax credits. WV now has solar tax credits.
He pointed to the trimetric meter, which has readouts for all kinds of things, including how long ago he last equalized his batteries. "This is the lifeblood of the whole system," he said, explaining that he takes a glance at it when he gets home from work to note the status of his current power supply. He checks the weather report.
Then he can decide, for example, whether to spend the evening watching television or just reading a book. If the batteries are low and its supposed to be cloudy for the next couple of days, he will conserve. This willingness to think about power usage is the key to living happily off-grid.
"The average American home wastes more power than I use," Dave noted, mentioning such things as leaving a television and several lights on all night. He said he has used a generator only three times in two years.
Dave opined that a lot more people would go solar if not for the hefty upfront price tag. He thinks the government should help out with a loan program, so you could buy it and then pay back the loan monthly.
From Daves we went to see RD and Peggy Dean, who have a brand new grid-tied system. They spent about $9,200, including $2,000 for installation. (If youd like the Deans recommendation on an installer, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
RD has five panels totaling 650 watts on his porch roof. He also has eight batteries, so he will only need to draw power from the grid when its cloudy for days in a row. He has a television, computer, washing machine, lights and a quite efficient model of refrigerator/freezer (ConServe). He obtained most of his components from Sun Electric of Miami, which he said is the cheapest hes seen.
Next we visited Warren Owings who has a tiny 110-watt system powering a couple of lights, a radio and DVD player and a water pump. His house is in the bottom, not an ideal location but he did have a nifty low-tech sun-tracking device: just a pair of ropes hanging down from his roof, which I watched him use to turn the solar array so it would be ready for the morning sun. Warren also has free gas and says he spent less than $1,000 on his solar system.
Finally, we climbed the hill to Kates house, where the sun was still shining. Kate stressed her feelings that, as environmentalists, we need to be working toward solutions to our problems so that we can quit our dependence on coal.
Like Warrens, Kates system dates to 1982, but she has expanded it since. She now has 295 watts worth of panels (with the 80s panels still working good as new) on her roof, and six batteries. She runs some lights, a television, a stereo and occasionally power tools or kitchen appliances. She has become used to conserving when its cloudy, especially in the winter.
Again, it seems this is the key to kicking the John Amos habit and living on sunlight being willing to pay attention and modify your habits to use less when there is less solar input and feeling free to use more when the sun shines.
Certainly, if you spent more money, you could install enough batteries and solar panels that you wouldnt have to think about your electricity consumption.
But thats how the nation has been living heedless of how much energy it uses and thats how we got to the point where some people can try to justify blowing up mountains and poisoning our water.
My Saturday trip showed me that going solar isnt hugely expensive and is entirely feasible even in Lincoln County, in the shadow of one of the biggest mountaintop removal operations, Hobet 21.
Kate and her neighbors must feel deeply gratified every time they flip a switch and dont blow up a mountain.