Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Home Power Plant Nation

In Mendo Island Transition on June 16, 2011 at 7:15 am

From CHRIS BOLGIANO
Bay Journal News Service
Via Transition Voice

The old dream of going off-grid has changed into today’s reality of using the grid as your own battery

It’s a gorgeous day full of singing birds and sunlight. Beautiful, streaming sunlight. Soon the photovoltaic system that added some aggression to my passive solar house in the mountains of western Virginia will be one year old, the time of reckoning.

Getting off the grid has always been nirvana for 1970s back-to-the-landers like me. With net-metering – a 21st century update of the dream – I am still connected, selling excess electricity in summer when the sun is high, and buying electricity at night and in winter. The grid has become my battery, although my home system includes batteries for three sunless days of essential services if the grid is knocked out: water pump, stove, freezer, and playing old movies through the storm.

In rural Appalachia, self-sufficiency is the traditional way of doing things.

Hope, change and plug-in EVs

Electricity has become a beacon of hope in the smog of our energy crisis. With President Obama’s promise to get plug-in electric cars on the market by 2015, home-grown electricity could help wean Americans from foreign oil, which is largely used for transportation.

But our largest source of electricity is coal, which is also the largest culprit in environmental damage of all kinds, from mountaintop removal mining to acid rain to climate change.

Nuclear plants have waste issues, huge costs overruns and terrorism target potential. Natural gas plants are better but not by much. Even renewable sources can have unacceptable impacts: Industrial wind plants in the East destroy forests, while industrial solar arrays in the West destroy deserts. Even when well-sited, the thousands of miles of new transmission lines needed to transport power from green sources destroy everything in their path. What can a compassionate conservationist support?

Distributed generation, that’s what.

On-site production of electricity (called distributed generation, or DG for short) is the cheapest, quickest, fairest way out of the energy conundrum. Site specific generation from small-scale solar, wind, geothermal, and biofuels installations, combined with the new administration’s energy conservation/efficiency programs, offers virtually unlimited resources for stimulating local jobs aimed at literally empowering local communities. From the widespread interest expressed in my own solar system, it seems that there is enormous pent-up consumer demand.

The paradigm of centralized power plants has been rendered obsolete by technology and terrorism. Consider how much stronger our nation would be against disasters both natural and criminal if schools, hospitals, community centers, businesses, nursing homes, farms, mobile homes, houses and apartment buildings across the country made enough electricity to pump drinking water and refrigerate food.

Americans haven’t enjoyed that kind of independence since they drank from dippers and packed pond ice in sawdust for the summer icebox. Decentralization of electricity brings a new perspective to the old rallying cry of democracy, “Power to the People!”

Home power

It will mean redesigning distribution lines and decoupling fixed costs from electricity rates to entice utility companies, traditionally hostile to DG. It will take new tax incentives, interconnection standards, building codes, and educational programs for electricians, builders, businesses and homeowners. It will take fleets of people at town, county, state, and federal levels all conspiring to allow consumers to take control of power sources.

What better use of stimulus money could there be?

Maybe I’m not the one to be talking about economics, which is based on the idea that people always act in their own best interests. My solar system contradicts that basic principle. At current electric rates, it will take me 45 years to pay it off. My own personal back-to-the-land trip will be well underway by then. Rates will undoubtedly go up, but buying this system was economically unsound and I’m proud of it, because I love to confound economists.

Taking responsibility for one’s own environmental impact is what much of the talk about “greening” is really about. Studies show that when people see direct consequences of their actions — say, turning off a computer for the night — they change their behavior and use significantly less energy.

It happened to me. After my new system was installed I checked the meter often for the fun of watching it run backward. And it did, through spring and summer. Now, it’s showing 820 kilowatt hours used from the grid in eleven months — roughly what an average American household uses in one month. At the end of a year, my utility company will pay me for any excess production.

I don’t really care about that, but I do want the meter to reach zero by next month to give me 100 percent solar electricity for the year, so – I’m powering off, goodbye!
~~

  1. Great ideas. One problem. If the author is right that “It will mean redesigning distribution lines and decoupling fixed costs from electricity rates to entice utility companies, traditionally hostile to DG. It will take new tax incentives, interconnection standards, building codes, and educational programs for electricians, builders, businesses and homeowners. It will take fleets of people at town, county, state, and federal levels all conspiring to allow consumers to take control of power sources,” then it means relying on a national political system is broken beyond repair, where one of the Seven Dwarfs, as Robert Scheer calls the current Republican candidates, might well defeat Barack Obama. And even were he re-elected, it’s hard to imagine that real change is coming our way.

    So , yes, let’s do distributed generation. But we’ll have to do it on our own. Nanny has been strung up, and we’re one our own.

  2. Coal is dirty. Nukes are dirty. Oil is dirty. Taxpayers pay to clean up this garbage and pay to subsidize the companies that that create this dirty energy. These costs don’t show up in your electric bill. As utilities don’t have to raise rates to pay for the garbage, your electric bill seems the be cheap.
    FIT or feed-in tariff, having been proven by many countries, including at least one US city, Gainesville Florida, works.
    Put solar on millions of homes and small businesses. Have utilities buy the energy at a price high enough to pay off the loan to purchase the solar systems. As the energy is clean, there is no little residual cost for cleanup. That is why the utilities should pay a higher (cleaner) price to you for your new solar system. In time, of course, that price they pay you can (and does) decrease, so the utility gets cleaner energy at favorable prices.
    No so-called smart grid is necessary, the wires are already in place. No stupid smartmeters are needed either.
    Then, of course , up the R&D subsidies for clean energy to a point where the most efficient solar and wind can be discovered. We already do it with oil, nukes and coal.
    Maybe Mendocino County needs to own its own Utility.

  3. We live grid tied and I thought having an EV would be the thing to have to take care of our transportation needs. We are giving up. We bought a Miles NEV for all of our in town driving needs plus we use our bikes which are electric assist. We are on our 3 set of batteries which aren’t cheap. Unless there is a battery that I haven’t heard of that is reasonably priced and reliable, I would say that EV’s aren’t the answer to our future transportation needs. I love my bike so I don’t mind but people better not think that the next step is already taken care of because it isn’t!

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,525 other followers