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Sun-Powered

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

This article was published in my free newsletter, Ready for Rain.

From the moment we decided to move to Orcas Island, I became fascinated with the idea of self-sufficiency. I dreamt of using water from a well, growing food, owning a home-based business, and learning to build and repair some of what we need. That dream is becoming more real each year.

Some elements of self-sufficiency are built in at our location. We don’t have the option to connect to community gas, water, or sewage, so we have well water, a propane tank (below, left) and a septic system (below, right),

I take some satisfaction from knowing that my water, for example, is independent of a city water system. It still amazes me that it comes right out of the ground, ready to drink.

Solar energy was always part of the plan for the property, but a lower priority in the midst of ​building Flattop​. At the time, some government subsidies and incentives were being phased out or were uncertain. We continued to say “someday” and added a conduit from the roof to our electrical panel to make future installation easier.

The Reasoning

At our latitude, solar energy is not a slam dunk. The equipment is expensive, we have short, cloudy days in the winter, and lots of tall trees. The alternative, power from the grid, isn’t terrible. It’s mostly clean energy from hydropower and relatively affordable. We spent months debating the options.

A reality of island life is more frequent power outages than the mainland. Our electricity comes from the mainland through an underwater cable and is part of a network across the San Juan Islands. In stormy weather, a fallen tree on another island can take out our power for hours. Before recent infrastructure improvements, many homes were built with diesel generators for powering homes in blackouts. They’re expensive, require regular maintenance, and are not clean energy sources.

For the first three years at Flattop, we did without backup power. Batteries, a chest freezer, cell phone service, and a propane stove could get us through. But we soon discovered a bigger problem: our well and septic pumps depend on electricity to function. To put it mildly, these systems are required and motivated us to consider alternative energy sources. We needed a battery for storing power to use in a blackout.

We met with a local solar installer and learned about all the new subsidies and incentives. The “Build Back Better” bill (2021) reset ​federal incentives​ to install solar and/or battery systems. The federal government offers a 30% tax credit on the cost of the project (materials and installation) until 2032. That’s huge. At the same time, the state of Washington doesn’t collect sales tax on the materials. Our local power co-op also offers a 10-year financing plan at 2% per year. It felt like everything lined up. We pulled the trigger and began a 14-month wait for solar panels and a battery system installation.

The Investment

These projects ideally pay for themselves over time. The big question is: how long will it take? Our installer estimated that solar would cover about 90% of our annual power bill and we’d likely pay it off in 9-10 years. That 90% number may sound surprising. Here’s how that works:

Our connection to the electrical grid is now a two-way system. We pay for the energy we use and can sell the excess energy we generate via solar back to the power co-op. The power we sell back is then credited against our power bill. The excess power from long summer days will offset our winter electricity use. Another factor is that the cost of grid electricity is likely to increase over time. A solar and battery system insulates us from potential increases.

The System

In February of this year, a team installed 37 panels on our roof, which equals almost 16 kilowatts of potential power production. In the photo below, the roof is recovering from a huge amount of pollen this year.

The battery system has two batteries and together hold 13 kilowatts of power. To put that into perspective… Our home, right now, uses between 20-40 kilowatts of power a day. In a power outage, we can reduce our power consumption to make those 13 kilowatts last 2-3 days.

The batteries are connected to the grid, which keeps them continually topped up. In a long power outage in the summer, the solar panels can charge the batteries and power the home. Then, battery power can easily get us through the night. This is more difficult in the winter when the sun is scarce.

We expected the installer to ask for specific circuits to power, like the fridge, etc. That didn’t happen. They connected everything to the battery, except power-hungry systems like heating, clothes dryer, etc. Now that the system is up and running it doesn’t require any maintenance, aside from washing the spring pollen from the panels.

The Outcomes

A week after the panels and batteries were installed, we were streaming a movie on TV when one of the lights dimmed for a split second. The movie continued, the digital clocks remained correct, and we shrugged it off. A few minutes later, we received an alert that said, “Your batteries are powering your home”. We had no idea! It was working! Because the batteries powered the TV and internet connection, we could keep watching.

Today we have phone apps and a tablet in our kitchen that display real-time data for the solar system: what the house is using and what’s powering it. It’s fascinating and satisfying. Our home is a generator! Sachi of course, watches the data every day and this time of year is exciting because we’re breaking records each week. On recent sunny days, we sold back twice the amount of power we used.

I see the romantic attraction to living “off the grid” like a homesteader in the wilderness, but that’s not the goal. What we want is a home and lifestyle that’s reasonably sustainable, self-sufficient, and balanced with convenience.

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