Sustainable Energy: Phase I – Our New Solar System

“And we have power!”

Harvesting current sunlight is a hoot.

Well folks, on June 14, 2011, another small portion of Earth’s surface (386 sq ft of roof area on our home in Colorado) began harvesting current sunlight as Gail and I continue on our path seeking a more sustainable life style.

The new solar photovoltaic (PV) system that transforms sunlight into electrical energy was activated (put on line with the Xcel Energy power grid) around noon.  About 15 minutes later, we had generated our first kilowatt hour (kWh) of energy for the power grid. By the end of the day, the solar energy production meter displayed 13 kWh. The new “net” meter installed by Xcel Energy started at 00000 and run backwards during the afternoon – by sundown it was reading 99989 indicating we harvested 13 kWh and consumed 2 kWh during the afternoon for a net 11 kWh stored in the Xcel “bank.”   At the crack of dawn next morning, as Earth was just turning to allow us to face the sun, our only sustainable source of energy for life on planet Earth, the “net” meter was still reading 99993 kWh – meaning that from sundown yesterday to this next morning we had consumed 4 kWh with our multiple computers, TVs, microwave, electric stovetop, George Foreman grill, coffee maker, dishwasher, refrigerator, clocks, lights, radio, etc. Nevertheless we had harvested a net 7 kWh for the first 1/2 day of operation. Since noon of yesterday, no ancient sunlight (coal, oil, natural gas) was consumed to support our electrical needs. No greenhouse gases (CO2, methane, etc.) were dumped into our atmosphere to support our residential electrical energy needs for the day.

Time will tell if this harvesting system is able to meet our needs on an annual basis (e.g. during the heat of the summer when we turn on the air conditioning or in the winter when the furnace motors turn on). Stay tuned.

Update. End of day two. Production meter reads 42 kWh; the “net” meter reads 99969 – so we have “banked” 31 kWh for later use after a day and half of harvesting current sunlight. The performance of the system is updated automatically every 15 minutes, and visible by logging into a web site that processes the solar panel data. One of the less “technical” displays is shown below that indicates the solar system has generated 46.3 kWh – enough to power 2 homes for a day – and saved/offset 71 pounds of carbon – equivalent to one tree. We will check on those “Environmental Benefits” and report on their accuracy in a later blog.

[Note: For those of you who are number crunchers, the Solar System performance of 46.3 kWh differs from the Xcel Production meter reading of 42 kWh because the solar system was activated for an hour or so for check-out purposes prior to Xcel installing their Production meter – so we “donated” about 4.3 kWh of energy to the grid before Xcel started monitoring the system. ]


As we approach the longest day (the best opportunity to harvest current sunlight) of the year (Solstice – June 21), Gail and I are able to say that it appears that we can continue our modestly complex life style with “modern conveniences” (at least during the late spring and early summer months) by taking responsibility for our personal household energy needs, gathering our current sunlight and transforming it into the electrical energy we consume each day PLUS storing some of the excess energy produced for use on cloudy days and the upcoming shorter days of winter.

My days of unconsciously raping and pillaging our planet as an army of one are over. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss. However, my self-awareness now includes knowledge of the irresponsible actions associated with my life style. Not so much what I do but how I do it. I have been living the life of Freddy the Freeloader – living off ancient sunlight – making withdrawals from the fossil fuel bank with no regard for the account balance – with no intention of ever paying it back – with no regard for how the resource got into the account in the first place. But now I realize, the energy companies of the world are issuing these subprime mortgages on the planet using a dwindling supply of natural capital as the basis of their loans, concerned only about collecting their “processing/extraction” fees and profit. The energy companies of the world have zero concern about how or if these loans will ever be paid back (i.e. how or when the energy and previously sequestered carbon will be returned to mother Earth). But now I am aware of what is going on and perceive my past way of living is just as unethical as subprime mortgages based on phantom assets.

Any banker understands that perpetual withdrawal from an account with no periodic deposits is the path to insolvency. So now its time for me to pay my own way on this planet – to stop borrowing life sustaining energy from planet Earth – to become an adult and harvest the energy needed to live my own live –  to stop bitching about the wanton consumption of coal by my local power company (did you know that on the Xcel Energy web site they proudly explain that at their Sherburne County, MN coal-burning power generating plant they actually pick up, overturn and dump a railroad car full of coal and burn that amount of coal every three minutes. They don’t mention that simultaneously they are also dumping tons of CO2 greenhouse gas into the atmosphere – along with other trace elements found in the coal that are scattered to the wind – not to mention the consumption of fresh water. Previously I bought the energy companies coal-generated and natural gas-generated electrical power intellectualizing that I didn’t have a choice. Until now.

By valuing the precious sunlight (energy) incident on our tiny urban plot of Earth’s surface for which we are the caretaker, we can harvest the energy needed for our family and use Xcel Energy Company as the energy bank – not a role they want to play but they do so begrudgingly at the edict of the Colorado legislation. More on that in a later blog. But now Gail and I are making deposits into the Xcel Energy bank and therefore acquire the right to make energy withdrawals for our modest but modern life style.

Gail and I have found there is no requirement for us to go back to the stone age to be sustainable – or to return to the life style of our grandparents who did live more sustainably.

We recognize that this time of year is nearly optimum for harvesting current sunlight. Our energy needs are at a minimum. From a home heating perspective energy consumption is minimal. The outside temperature cools off in the evening to the 50s/60s and with new EnergyStar windows throughout the home that minimize heat transfer between the inside and outside, we can keep the house cool naturally even when it reaches the high 80s- low 90s outside – without using the Air Conditioner. It doesn’t cool down enough outside this time of year to require the furnace to come on and consume natural gas. However, as we took showers yesterday, the hot water heater came on and consumed natural gas – as it did for a load of laundry, and for a load of dishes in the dishwasher. More on how we plan to address the natural gas issue in a later blog. (Good News. There are viable non-carbon options)

So much for Phase 1 of our personal sustainable energy plan.
“A small step taken is preferable to a large step intended.”

The plan for Phase 2 is to install a geothermal heat pump that exchanges energy with mother Earth instead of fracing her to extract her non-renewable reserve of natural gas currently burned in our furnace to keep us warm at the northern latitudes.   Small electric motors (driven by power from the solar PV system) will be used to operate the heating / cooling system – but no fossil energy (i.e. natural gas) is required.

The plan for Phase 3 is to purchase either an all-electric car for local use or a plug-in hybrid car – ideally a hydrogen fueled (carbon-free) vehicle – Yes they are being developed in Germany and other countries. When will we in the US ever learn? When will we become responsible consumers and demand the production of sustainable products in the US? For example, I initially insisted on buying only solar panels produced in the US – unfortunately that was an exercise in futility – but that’s another story for a future blog.

The plan for Phase 4 is to continue to deal with the more difficult issue of food – sustainable production, transportation, processing and storage. My grandfather farmed in a sustainable manner – I still remember his draft horses. My boyhood friends who still farm are no longer using sustainable agricultural practices.

The plan for Phase 5 is to harvest and store current sunlight (accumulate real wealth) that can then be used / converted into carbon-less / carbon-neutral fuel for longer range transportation, manufacturing, and general business purposes for the sustainable consumer products I decide buy.

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