Living on Solar Energy

By Dale Glaser

I live in the hills outside Ukiah, far away from utility power lines, but I wouldn't hook up to PG&E even if they offered to extend the power lines to my house for free. Instead I produce and maintain my own alternative energy system powered by the sun. I have lived with alternative power for 15 years, and I'm here to say that solar power works! The technology for alternative home power these days is extensive, available, efficient, high quality, and reasonably inexpensive. It is possible to create everything from a small scale system meeting basic lighting needs ($500+), to a full-blown energy system capable of matching the power requirements of a "normal" city home ($10,000+). It just depends on what you want to do and how much money you want to spend. What is great about alternative energy is that you can build in a modular fashion: start small and then expand your system over time as your needs grow and your finances allow.

Some history

I bought property with several friends outside Ukiah in the early 70s as part of the "back-to-the-land movement. There was no PG&E access, and for years we used kerosene lamps for lights. Forget a music system, we made our own music, and read novels to each other. It was great.

Over time, people realized that 12 volt auto components could be used as building blocks for home energy systems (batteries, auto light bulbs, alternators for hydro and wind generators, auto car casette players for music etc.). I remember hauling a car battery up and down our hill to take it into town to charge at a service station.

But it was with the evolution of photovoltaic panels, which produce electricity from sunlight, that alternative energy really began to work. We could buy a solar panel, walk out from the house, prop the panel up, run wires to our battery, and have an instant energy system. No more hauling batteries.

While we were beginning to use alternative energy up in the hills, there was a brief period when alternative energy interest went mainstream. The "oil crisis" in the 70s suddenly got the whole country focused on finding energy alternatives to foreign oil. During the Carter (Federal) and Brown (California) administrations, incentives and rebates were given for the development and use of alternative sources of energy in homes and business. Photovoltaic and solar water heating systems sprang up everywhere. Then Ronald Reagan was elected president, all the government subsidies ended (except to oil producers!), and you no longer heard much in the news about alternative energy.

However, alternative energy definitely did not die. It just went smaller scale and continued to develop behind the scenes and outside the spotlight of the media.

Northern California, especially, has always been one of the most active areas for both the development, use and promotion of alternative energy, with Real Goods Trading Co. in Ukiah/Hopland, EathLab and R.E.D.I. in Willits. REDI, which stands for Renewable Energy Development, Inc., puts on the Solar Expo every other year in the area.

These days, not only has low voltage 12 volt technology evolved, but also the technology for efficiently converting 12 volt to 110 AC (using an inverter), so that you can now run most standard 110 appliances from an alternative energy system.

My energy system

I recently upgraded my own energy system. What I had previously could be described as a "guerrilla" energy system. In other words, I bought inexpensive or used components, it worked, but I never had quite enough power coming into my batteries, and so they were always getting depleted and I was getting low voltage shutdowns from my inverter. One minute I would be watching television or working on my computer, the next minute I had no power.

My new upgraded solar system, in contrast, actually produces more power than I need most of the year and I use the excess power to pre-heat water in a solar hot water system. My energy system consists of:

1. An array of photovoltaic panels on a solar tracker, which follows the sun like a sunflower does.

2. A large battery bank consisting of used AT&T stationary batteries, which allows me to store power for winter storms, when solar panel output drops radically.

3. A micro-hydroelectric system that I use only during the winter and is powered from winter runoff water.

4. A 2500 watt inverter for converting 12 volts DC to 110 AC.

5. A solar hot water system that supplies most of my hot water during sunny weather and some during the winter.

It is possible to build an alternative energy powered house these days and treat the energy like it was PG&E power, i.e., take the power for granted, and not know, or care, anything about alternative energy. In general, however, with an alternative energy system, you are living with a sustainable and "limited" energy source and you need to stay conscious of your power use.

This, of course, also depends on how big a system you have installed. I happen to like watching the gauges and meters that help me monitor my system, knowing that I am getting my energy from the sun. In fact, when I wake up in the morning and see the sun shining, I say out loud, "Alright, it's a solar day!"

The wrong way to think about alternative energy

Many people, when they look into an alternative energy system, try to compare it to getting PG&E power. They amortize the cost of a system, i.e., how long before the cost would equal what you would have paid for PG&E power. I think that approach is wrong. Does $10,000 seem like a lot to spend on an energy system? People spend that to buy a car. I chose to buy a cheaper car and put my money into creating my own electricity. And I could spread the cost over a few years.

New: Utilities must buy power from independent providers

As part of utility deregulation, a new law passed last August in California allows Net Billing. People who have an alternative energy system AND excess solar power. can get P.G.&E. service and then connect specially-made inverters to their electrical meter and run the meter backwards, in effect, selling their excess power to the utility company.Hooray for deregulation!

Alternative energy is the future

There is no question that eventually our society will switch over to solar power for energy.

It's clean and sustainable. The irony is that we are so tied into a petroleum economy and the vested interests are so strong that the changeover will take a long time, and meanwhile we have to live with all the growing environmental effects of an oil-based society.

As for myself, I decided not to wait, and live the future now in my lifetime. When the sun shines, it's a solar power day!

Copyright Mendocino College Eagle 1995
Permission granted to excerpt or use this article if source is cited

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Last Update: 7/23/96