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Homestead Energy - Electricity

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In the previous two articles in this series I discussed the evolution of some of our experiments with harnessing the power of the sun.  These experiments took the form of water heaters, solar ovens and a solar powered food dehydrator.  The sun continues to be the central focus as I move on to electrical generation.

Whenever people hear the concept of the energy independent homestead it seems their first thought is of electricity.  This is not surprising and, I think, simply reflects western society’s addiction to and dependence on this convenient form of energy as a consort to a vast array of everyday tasks.  Needless to say, such was not always the case.  As recently as 80 years ago household electricity was a novelty confined to urban centers and used primarily as a source of light.  Rural electrification was a project of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and was preceded by the first crude independent electrical systems on remote farmsteads.  Rummage about the outbuildings of older farmsteads around the country and you may still stumble across the huge glass jars which housed the battery components of these systems.  Even though Nicola Tesla’s polyphase induction motors were revolutionizing industrial processes within a decade of the start of the 20th Century, my four grandparents grew up in a world where electricity was still the exotic stuff of carnival sideshows.  Remarkably, in the space of a pair of lifetimes, electricity has invaded every corner of our lives.  For the great majority of Americans it has become indispensable.  Given Laurie’s and my habit of analyzing our every decision, we were not taking for granted the issue of electricity at the homestead.  Like Descartes in his search for epistemological truth, we were committed to questioning every assumption that underlay the energy culture of society.

We were aware that in our own county Amish families were living without benefit of any electricity at all, so doing without presented itself as a theoretical starting point.  We decided to look first at the ways we were already using electricity, rate them for importance and then look at alternatives.  (I should note that in the early years of developing the Meco homestead we lived in a camp with grid power located 15 miles away in Broadalbin.)  Lighting quickly leaped to the top of the list with the washing machine a close second.  Our kitchen was full of appliances like the microwave, toaster, electric frying pan, blender, mixer, food processor, coffee grinder, etc.  We enjoyed entertainment in the form of radio, stereo, computer, etc. (We even had a TV at the time although, even then, we could find no practical use for it.)  We had both a refrigerator and a large upright freezer.  A submersible pump supplied our water, which was then heated by electricity. There were household tools like sewing machines, an iron and a couple of vacuum cleaners as well as carpentry tools for sawing, drilling, fastening, etc.  All in all we were mainlining some serious electricity.

Since there was no electricity available at the homestead, we had already discovered that hand tools worked great for building.  We had built storage sheds and an outhouse as well as the wooden forms for stone foundation work with little more than handsaws and a brace and bit, all from lumber milled from the tree with a gas powered bandsaw mill.  As mentioned in an earlier article (Organic Farms, Food & Folks, Vol. 20, No.2) we had successfully installed a gravity-fed water supply and a solar water heater.  We even had a treadle sewing machine waiting to be refurbished.  Along side our array of electric kitchen appliances we had collected over the years a number of wonderful hand-operated tools including a Corona grain mill, a small and large Universal food mill, a Foley food mill as well as graters, choppers, slicers, dicers and beaters of many kinds.  Here too we felt that Cuisinarts and Osterizers were convenient, but not indispensable.

When it came to the refrigerator we were both convinced that we could do without it.  Whenever we looked inside we typically found that about 80% of what was in there did not need refrigeration.  The refrigerator seemed to serve two principal functions: (1) As a place to hide things until they were irrevocably lost, and (2) as a place to house important biological experiments using items from (1) as raw material.  We thought that a properly designed and spacious root cellar would satisfy most of our needs with a small cooler with ice for beer and other things that needed “real cold”.  Likewise the freezer was just a means of longer term preservation and we were looking at alternatives like drying, canning, pickling, etc. which did not require constant energy inputs.

We were coming down the home stretch to an electric-free future when we ran smack into the washing machine.  Believe it or not, we both agreed that there was no substitute for the automatic washing machine.  We had seen the washboard down by the creek; the gasoline powered wringer washer and other hands-on instruments of torture.  We were adamant that laundry should be a “set it and forget it” operation.  Driving to the Laundromat was rejected since we felt that the rampant use of internal combustion engines was a social problem rather than a solution.  Like Descartes, we had arrived at a pivotal epiphany; I think, therefore I need an automatic washing machine.

Lighting also was a problem.  For avid readers like us there are few substitutes for the high quality illumination of electric light.  We looked at gas lamps and were horrified to discover that the mantles contain highly toxic radioactive thorium (no wonder they glow so beautifully).  Laurie is sensitive to the fumes from kerosene and oil burning lamps and candles simply don’t provide enough light.  We looked at our extensive collection of records and compact discs and realized they gave us great pleasure and would be sorely missed in a non-electric household.  We are not religious fanatics.  Our goal was to live sensibly and simply, to sip resources rather than gulp them down.  It seemed that electricity might play a part in achieving that goal, if not as blind necessity then as reasonable convenience.  The question then arose, where would we get electricity?

Clearly we were not going to connect the homestead to Niagara Mohawk (owner of the grid in our area, itself now owned by National Grid, a multinational energy conglomerate based in Great Britain). There are many problems with grid electricity not the least of which is that, in our case, a significant percentage of the power comes from nuclear reactors, to us the worst sort of nest fouling technology.  If we were to have electricity it would have to be from a renewable and minimally polluting source.

Our first experiments with independent electricity at the homestead consisted of a car battery and an old round-style sealed beam headlight set into a coffee can.  We had a small (about 5-watt) PV panel appropriately named “The Car Charger” which on sunny days was hooked to the battery to keep it charged.  It wasn’t much but it worked.  Next we purchased a small wind generator, an Air 303, which with a 25 to 30 mph wind will produce 350 watts of power at 12 volts DC.  This we mounted on a 10-foot pipe on the roof of the barn.  When we finally moved to the homestead we raised the windmill another 40 feet so it was 70 feet above the ground.  We purchased four 120-watt PV panels, eight 6-volt deep cycle “golf cart” batteries, an 1100 watt inverter and a few peripheral items to make a complete system.

In our first 6 months or so we were extremely conservative.  Lights were on only when necessary.  Appliances were used sparingly or not at all.  We aimed for a Spartan style of comfort.  In that period we reduced our electric consumption from an average of 7 kilowatt hours/day when we were on the grid to about 650 watt hours/day (less than 1 kilowatt hour), a better than 90% reduction.  (Compare that to Vice President Cheney’s assertion that conservation is morally attractive but cannot be the basis for an energy policy.)  Imagine our surprise when we discovered that our system was capable of producing far more electricity than we were using!  Now in our third year of living “off the grid” we have an electric water pump, electric grain grinder, and computer.  The microwave, Cuisinart, blender and other gleaming icons of modern life once again adorn the kitchen.  We even have an electric “hot pot” to boil water for tea and coffee.  Our friend Dave allowed us to borrow his solar powered ice cream trailer so we also enjoy the unbelievable luxury of a refrigerator and freezer.  (The trailer has its own PV panels and battery bank and operates independently of the house system.)  Our electrical consumption has increased to an average of 1650 watt hours/day about 750 or nearly half of that attributable to refrigeration.  Still only a fraction of what we formerly consumed.  I can honestly say that we deny ourselves nothing in that process.  All we’ve eliminated is the waste that is inherent in the operation of the modern household. 

At this point people usually want to know what all this stuff cost us.  The following breakdown gives rough costs:

1- Air 303 wind generator  $ 500
4- 120 watt PV panels   $2000
8- 6 volt, 220 amphour batteries $ 550
1- 1100 watt sine wave inverter $ 700
Miscellaneous extras   $ 200

Total     $3950

In an attempt to quantify the worth of such a system people often ask what is the payback period, or how long will it take for my avoided electric bills to equal what I spent on the system?  Put another way this is tantamount to asking when will my electricity be free.  It’s a foolish question.  We never ask that of our cars.  Cars are never free.  They require fuel to run, maintenance and repairs, and in spite of our efforts, they wear out and become junk.  We never ask when will I live in my house for free for the same reasons.  These are physical systems.  They require inputs and maintenance throughout their lives.  In this regard our electric system demands little.  A gallon or two of distilled water every year suffices for the batteries.  We clean the snow from the panels in winter and adjust their angle once a month.  That is all. 

There is a better way to quantify the worth of our solar powered electrical system and that is to look at it as an investment.  Taking our case as an example, we spent about $4,000 on our equipment.  During the last year we were on the grid our electric bills averaged about $60/month.  Our monthly bill now is zero.  In other words our $4,000 investment returns $60/month or 1.5%/month.  If that $4,000 were in a money market fund currently paying 2%/year I’d be realizing a staggering return of $6.67/ month.  If I had been really smart and invested $4,000 in the stock market in February 2000 my investment would now be worth $2,760 (based on Dow average of more than 11,000 in Feb. 2000 down to about 7,600 in Sept. 2002), a loss of about a third.  In both cases I’d still be spending an additional $60/month on electricity!  Last year in California electric bills doubled overnight due, we now know, to crass manipulation of supply by huge, recently deregulated energy conglomerates (Enron foremost among them).  The home based energy system is immune to such predatory price gouging.  In fact every increase in the cost of grid electricity represents an increase in the return on our original investment.  While the cost of our system was kept to a minimum because we did all the installation work ourselves, even a system costing three or four times as much would still outperform the other two investment possibilities I presented.  In fact it would take $36,000 in a money market fund to return $60/month at today’s rate. 

Ultimately the issues of energy production and consumption go far beyond money.  It is often said that solar power is too expensive to compete with cheap grid energy, but the environmental devastation wrought by grid energy producers is an unacceptably high cost. For them the issue is really one of control: control of the market for control of profit. For us it is simply a matter of not squandering this abundant sunshine so freely provided to us. Long ago in human history people worshipped the sun as a divine being.  It is easy to understand how this awesome power, giver of life, warmth and light, prime mover of the air and water could inspire such reverence.  It is far more difficult to understand why humans ever turned their backs on this belief in favor of the fickle and invisible deities who to this day war for attention.  In Victor Hugo’s poem  “The Star”, Venus, the morning star, is speaking as dawn breaks over the world.
She says:

Thinkers, Spirits – Climb the ramparts!
Eyelids, open!  Eyes, alight!  Earth,
Plow your furrows; start the fanfare, Life!
Sleepers, arise! –For the one who follows,
The one who sends me ahead
Is the angel of Freedom, the giant of Light.

Glossary of Terms

Amps or Amperes – a measure of current flow in an electrical system

AC – Alternating Current.  The electricity coming into a grid connected home changes polarity (alternates) 60 times per second.

DC – Direct Current. The electricity coming from batteries and PV panels. The polarity remains constant.

The Grid – The vast array of power lines and generating stations which make up the electric supply system; so-called by people in the renewable energy field.

PV – Photovoltaic, a fancy name for a device that converts light energy directly into electrical energy.

Inverter – A device which converts DC electricity into AC electricity.  The most commonly used inverters convert low voltage DC (12 or 24 volts) into high voltage AC to match the kind that comes from the grid.

Volt – A measure of electric pressure.  Volts bear an inverse relationship to amperes such that for a given power level higher voltage means lower amperage.  The power company takes advantage of this phenomenon to transmit electricity at extremely high voltages on its trunk lines.

Watt – A measure of power consumption.  Watts are the product of volts times amperes. Thus a light bulb which at 120 volts passes a current of 1 ampere is a 120-watt light bulb.  The same wattage bulb in a 12-volt system would pass a current of 10 amperes.

Kilowatt – 1000 watts. A kilowatt-hour is a kilowatt of electricity consumed for a period of one hour.  Ten 100 watt bulbs left on for 1 hour would consume a kilowatt-hour of electricity.

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