Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Wind power for everyone - even the cynics

As I write this the sun is shining brightly – the solar chimes in a downstairs window are pinging merrily, and I can hear our wind turbine spinning out electric power. Other than knowing that our batteries are filling up with electricity, I’m not much of an electrician. BUT!

One of the most interesting topics to come up a the annual Dancing Rabbit retreat this last weekend, at least for me, is considering going from having our own independent solar/wind power systems to hooking up to “the grid.” NOTE: For a quick explanation of the grid, look at this link Modernize the Grid . It is not entirely unbiased, but you’ll get the general idea.

My first reaction to DR hooking up to the grid was “no way!” I didn’t want to have anything to do with a system that uses coal and nuclear power – hooking up to the grid felt akin to sleeping with the enemy. But through listening and reading, I’ve begun to realize that like most things, it is much more complicated and multi-faceted than I had ever realized.

The power grid itself, the huge nationwide system that generates electricity and then moves it to where it is needed, is a marvel of engineering. But with the ease of seemingly abundant power comes a sense of entitlement and lack of awareness.

If we can simply flick on a switch and have a room flooded with light, plug in an electric heater when we get cold, add a huge freezer and fridge to hold our food so that we can eat anything regardless of the season, if we all have large screen televisions, 5,000 square foot homes, air conditioning left on 24 hours a day in the summer…it is easy to forget where our power comes from.

I certainly never thought (much) about it before moving to Dancing Rabbit. But the days of blasé naïveté are over. Mountain tops are being removed so that Americans can heat the towel bars in their bathrooms. Appalachia (Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia) has been systematically scalped for the last 28 years. If you think I’m exaggerating, you have never seen photos of “modern surface mining” (as it is euphemistically called). Simply google “coal mining” or go to this site or to Mountain Justice or to Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. More than 80% of Missouri is currently powered by coal-fired plants.

Nuclear power is not clean, either. Lest we forget, take a quick look at Paul Fusco’s Chernobyl Legacy . The Chernobyl reactor exploded in 1986. The photos were taken in 1997. Most of the children pictured must have been in utero or not yet conceived – those who didn’t die outright suffer from severe genetic disorders and a number of lethal cancers. Four hundred times more radioactive fallout was released than in the bombing of Hiroshima. Is our use of electrical appliances so important that we let this happen to children?

Back to Dancing Rabbit.

When we arrived, the first thing Kurt did was to install our solar panels (and later, a wind turbine), hooked them both to a bank of eight deep-cycle batteries to hold the electricity, and also hooked everything up to an inverter and charge controller. I am not really interested in the mechanics of it all – I’ve simply learned how to interpret the readout so that I know when I can use the waffle iron and when I need to be more conservative with my electricity use.

We (Kurt and I, and many other Rabbits) have known from the start that there were very few easy answers to the environmental challenges facing us. I was fully aware that many of our choices were less than optimal, but had to content myself that we were working towards better solutions. For example, the small scale renewable energy system that powers our house is largely dependent upon deep-cycle lead-acid batteries. We need them to store electricity so that at night and during cloudy weather we can have power. (NOTE: not everyone at DR has a power system. But I’ve noticed that the folks who live in houses without electricity spend a lot of time in buildings that DO have power – Skyhouse and the Community Building – using the lights and the wi-fi).

Four (of eight) deep cycle batteries

These deep-cycle lead-acid batteries are not sustainable. They wear out in about ten years, and there are issues with both manufacture and disposal. Plus they are (almost prohibitively) expensive. We chose to use them because at the time they were our best option.

Where we monitor the power currently (no pun intended) in our batteries.

But the times, they are a-changing.

More and more municipalities are allowing grid intertie systems.

I LOVE THINKING ABOUT THIS. It is always sunny and/or windy somewhere in the United States. What if those of us utilizing renewable energy (wind and solar) hooked up to the grid to share our excess electricity? Can we, by contributing our “green” power, help with the huge culture shift that must happen to wean ourselves away from coal and nuclear power? What if dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions of individual homeowners and communities installed solar panels and wind turbines and sent power back into the grid? Coupled with conservation (which does NOT have to mean deprivation) we could decrease the demand for polluting power by providing a bountiful, green alternative.

Our goal at Dancing Rabbit is not to be self-sufficient. What we DO want is to be a part of a sustainable society, and to demonstrate that great lives can be had while living sustainably, and to contribute to the solution. I look forward to next week’s retreat meetings and further discussions about this issue. I’ll keep you posted about how the conversation is proceeding and what is happening. In the meantime, consider doing the following:

  • Plug your appliances into power strips that can be turned off when not in use. We have these on our printer, our television, our microwave.* These appliances, and many more with an “automatic on” capability are ALWAYS pulling power. Ghost load details here

*Oh, just stop it! We have a TV to watch Netflix movies on occasionally. We have a microwave because it is a very efficient way to warm up leftovers WITHOUT using propane.

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