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What Goes 'Round, Comes 'Round by Kathleen Jarschke-Schultze
Both of my parents were born off grid. Oh, there was electricity back then, just not where they were. The doctor who delivered my mother drove out from Stockton, California, in a horse and buggy. My father was born in a log cabin in the wilds of Manitoba, Canada.
When my fatherwas seven years old, my grandfather sold the homestead, loaded his five kids and trunks into the horse-drawn wagon and drove to town. Later that day, my father saw his first automobile, his first electric light, and his first train.
It amazes me to think of all the world and technological changes my father has seen in his lifetime. He has enthusiastically embraced it all. When we were kids, he used to wake us up so we could see the Mercury and Gemini space shots live on TV. "You're watching history," he'd say. We recently celebrated at Dad's annual birthday bonfire. He's ninety now. Technology is at a dead run, from zero to global warming during my dad's lifetime.
My dad gave me a good grounding in the common-sense basics of living with renewable energy, although he didn't know it. He taught us to turn off lights when we left a room and to turn off electrical devices if we weren't using them. Long before recycling was popular, he taught us to separate our trash. He got more satisfaction out of rebuilding or reusing old parts than buying new.
With my dad's conservation ethic, it's no surprise I had little trouble adapting to an off-grid, self-sufficient lifestyle. The first renewable energy I lived with was microhydro power. In the mountainous area along the Salmon River in California, where little streams and creeks abounded, a lot of people used small AC or DC hydro plants. Old mining ditches and ponds were utilized. Hydro, twenty-four hours
a day, rain or shine, was preferable to running a gas or diesel generator.
My husband Bob-O bought his hydro turbine years before I met him, and we used it at our high-head, low-flow site. It was a great unit, but the regulator failed almost immediately. In HP2, publisher Richard Perez wrote about a circuit for an alternator controller for a gas engine. Bob-O adapted it for our hydro turbine, made the controller, and it worked pretty well. Bob-O wrote Richard a fan letter, which led to our meeting Richard and his wife Karen.
In our home, most of the electrical devices, including lights, were 12 volt. We had a very small inverter for when we needed 120 VAC. If we needed more energy, we used a gas driven generator/arc welder. At that time, because Bob-O's work kept him away from the cabin for lengths of time, I had a crash course in microhydro maintenance and repair. I learned how to clean the intake of forest debris, how to reset the alternator, and how to check the batteries. Most importantly, I learned how to check the nozzle for plugging at the wheel before climbing the mountain to check the intake.
One day, while walking along our water ditch with a rakehoe and cleaning the length up and then down, I spotted a large madrone tree with fresh bear-claw marks on it at about my eye level (I'm 5'10"). At first, this made me very nervous to go up there alone. Old Dick Haley, a decorated Iwo Jima veteran from downriver, told me to take a knife and carve some of my own marks above the bear's. While my dad was visiting, we did just that in an effort to make the bear think we were the bigger bear.
Although mountain living offered almost daily adventures with wildlife, my housekeeping chores also provided me with some interesting episodes. My ringer washing machine, for instance, had its own engine. A pull-start Briggs and Stratton. Bob-O always called it the "Briggs and Scrap Iron," but it was pretty reliable. I learned to check the oil and gas before I did the laundry.
It sat outside, under some oak trees, and was a pleasant place to be in the summer. The winter, however, was a different matter. I told Bob-O that the water was just too damn cold to put my hands into in the winter. He sympathized. A couple of weeks later, he surprised me with elbow-length, flannel-lined, rubber gloves.
We had two refrigerators. Both small, aged Servel propane models, named Harold and Sylvia. Harold had a right-hand hinge and Sylvia's was left-handed. They sat side by side on our enclosed screen porch. In the summer they were barely adequate and in the winter they were freezers.
As part of a neighborhood purchase, we did buy two solar-electric panels one time. The PV modules sat in their boxes for over a year. With our year-round hydro system providing for all our electrical needs, we just never seemed to need the modules. Then we moved across the county, where our hydro resource is seasonal, and solar became our mainstay.
In the cabin, I was short on mainstream household appliances. Over time, I have remedied that. For more than 15 years now I've used a Sun Frost RF16 refrigerator. My Sun Frost F10 freezer is about 10 years old. My front-loading clothes washer is a Frigidaire, as is my gas dryer. My automatic dishwasher is a Swedish Asko. I use a Dyson vacuum cleaner. All my appliances are very efficient. They need to be.
Finally, mainstream American manufacturers and consumers are getting the point of energy conservation. Household appliances have gotten more efficient and energy-conscientious consumers have a wider array of choices.
Recently Bob-O and I saw a commercial for a national real estate company. In it, the clean-cut young couple queried, "What if we want a home that uses solar power? Or wind power?" The advertising company assured that it was no problem for their agents.
Boy, have things changed. Not that long ago, the image most folks had of the renewables lifestyle was two hippies living in a teepee and listening to a PV-powered 12-volt car stereo. In fact, when we started our renewable energy design and installation business, all our jobs were for off-grid systems. It is still true that land beyond the grasp of the power lines is cheaper, which is where our "stand-alone" clients are.
While we still design and install off-grid systems and provide service for off-gridders like us, what we're seeing more and more are people on the utility grid who want to use renewables—even if the system doesn't completely cover their energy usage. And in states like ours that financially encourage grid-tie solar-electric systems, the response is steadily growing.
My dad understood the value of conservation and passed this ethic on to me, where I've made it my business to share it with others. Being married to Bob-O, one of the silverbacks of solar, has given me an early view of what RE can do. I see my RE past becoming actively sought-after in the present, and, like my dad, I'm eagerly looking forward to new technological developments in renewable energy. After all, necessity is the mother—or father—of invention.
Kathleen Jarschke-Schultze ([email protected] homepower.com) is the ant, not the grasshopper, at her off-grid home in northernmost California.
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