Friday, November 13, 2009

Desert Tidbits: Here Comes the Sun

By now, most of us have heard wonderful things about solar power, and in result, many of us have wondered how to join in the fun. In the Buddhist world, where we are often concerned and involved with retreat centers, rural properties, and so forth, "going off the grid" is something of considerable interest. Indeed, solar usage is ubiquitous in Asian monasteries. In Tibet, for example, solar tea kettle boilers are seen everywhere. The Seventeenth Karmapa is on record as saying all Kagyu facilities should go solar, and Thich Nhat Hanh already converted his Deer Park Monastery to 100% solar.

I share this interest, but I never had the time to jump into the subject.

Until now.

So, here are some notes taken whilst jumping.

You can find tons of stuff on the web, but the one thing you cannot find is a consistent formula for determining the size of the system you have to install. There are numerous formulae, but none of them are consistent.

For example: taking the past fourteen months as the data, my average, daily usage is 36.52 kWh. According to the most popular formula, that means I should have a 6.5 KW system. However, when I called the local experts, they said this was overkill, and that I should go with a 5.9 KW system.

They also told me something which I found most singular. If I wanted to go 100% off the grid, the price would be double that of a grid-tie system, or around USD $44,000, and there would be no financial incentives. Once all the incentives and subsidies were factored in, the grid-tie system, which was estimated at around USD $22,000, would come to an actual, out-of-pocket cost of USD $8,000. (*)

I may not understand this correctly, but it seems to me that they are rewarding you for staying in touch with the power company. Don't they know this will make old hippies wary and suspicious? To be fair, I think the upside is that California now has a law in place whereby the power companies have to pay you for the excess power you generate back to the grid. Just how that might work is something I am in the process of finding out.

Now, there is an old, high desert retreat cabin that sometimes calls to me, and I thought it might be instructive to put solar in this cabin. Nothing fancy, mind you; just a couple of energy efficient lights, so I could stop using the Petromax, saving it for emergencies and expeditions. Besides, being in the high desert and not using solar seems like a terrible waste -- like living in a windy place and not having many prayer flags.

To accomplish this, I had to engage in the rather unsavory act of purchasing a small, 45 W kit from an overseas source that shall here go nameless. Think Wal-Mart, but it wasn't Wal-Mart. Actually, it was worse than Wal-Mart, and when I came home, I felt like I needed to take a long shower.

This kit cost around $250 full retail, which seemed like a bargain, until I realized that I also had to get an inverter, and of course a battery. The inverter was $130, the cables were $40, and the battery was $200, so now we have $620 into the adventure, or $310 per light bulb. Actually, you can find this same kit on eBay for around $180, or so, but when you add in the shipping, you don't really save all that much.

Well, the Petromax costs around $150 these days, so maybe $300 for two bulbs and three 110 sockets in the middle of nowhere isn't too bad. By the way... the Petromax, which is basically a WWI German trench lantern, is not made in America as widely claimed. It is actually assembled in China, so to be politically correct, you would have to get a vintage, original one, and they go for around USD $400.

At least now I can tell my kids that I "went green," and cause them to breathe a little easier. They told me that when you do something like this, it is the same as planting trees. That is just wonderful.  Pity that money doesn't grow on them. Now if I could only afford the $8000 it takes to get 5.9 KW, which I am told is the same as planting 187 trees.

I could then make an imaginary offering of the imaginary forest, and start sending bills to the power company besides.

You tell me what is wrong with that?

By the way... for making tea in the wilds, I don't use a solar kettle. I use a Thermette.  That solid copper one on the left in the photo below costs around USD $110 in the U.S., and next to nothing in Chengdu. Yes, like the venerable Petromax, the venerable Thermette is not made in New Zealand anymore, but China. They run quite well off of yak shit, and how many trees are involved in that equation I will leave up to you.

(*) These prices are exclusive of installation, which was estimated at USD $9,000! Now I know what I want to be when I grow up: an electrician.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

1 reader comments:

michael said...

Check out home power magazine archives for lots of information and designs about off- and on-grid systems. We have been off-grid solar on the Oregon coast since 1988 and it works. Just have to manage your loads (buddhists call it mindfulness) and emphasize awareness. Think of the system as a light offering. Start small and expand as expenses allow. Do the right thing and don't worry about pay back.