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Then and Now

Fifty Home Power Issues

Richard Perez

We mailed the first issue of Home Power in November 1987. Over the last eight years we have published 50 issues of Home Power. Renewable energy has changed over this seemingly short period of time. Eight years ago, powering one's home with renewable energy was considered a fantasy. Now RE-powered homes are becoming commonplace. What happened? Why did things change so quickly?

Pioneers

The first home-sized RE systems were installed by the back-to-the-landers during the 1970s. During this time an RE system was less expensive than five miles of newly installed utility power line. In those days RE was very expensive and the utilities were

©1995 Richard Perez charging less for line extensions into rural areas. The common home power scenario we all joked about was, "Two hippies in a tepee." And this joke came closer to the heart of RE than most realized. From 1970 to 1990 many pioneers fled the cities in search of a better life in sparsely populated rural areas. We all discovered the same basic truths about buying rural land. If we could afford it, then the land had no utility power access, no telephone access and probably bad or no road access. We didn't care and thousands of us moved to the country anyway.

Many of us were content with kerosene lights or candles. We hauled our water in buckets. Our only electrical luxuries were disposable batteries for a flashlight, radio or cassette tape player. After years of this, many of us decided to go electric with small 12 VDC battery systems. The battery was usually recharged from a gasoline-fueled, engine generator that also did big jobs such as pumping water. During the early 1970s, NASA was just about the only one who could afford space age marvels like photovoltaic modules.

In 1985, the very first efficient and reliable inverters hit the market.

They instantly revolutionized home power systems—reducing generator operating time and allowing constant access to many conventional 120 vac appliances. Most early systems were strictly 12 VDC. If the appliance didn't come with an automotive cigar lighter plug, then we weren't interested. I am reminded of Karen's first blender. It was a 12 Volt DC model which consumed a whopping 15 Amps. It required heavy power wires and a socket installed in the kitchen. The blender had two speeds (on and off) and cost over $80 through a mail order catalog. Compare this with the standard department store blender available everywhere—12 speeds and a cost of less than $30. The situation was similar with most appliances—the low voltage DC models were more expensive, with less features and less power. Add the complexity and expense involved with wiring a home for efficient 12 VDC power use, and it's easy to see why inverters became very popular very quickly.

As we began the 1990s, the price of PVs, wind turbines and microhydros dropped. Not only was the hardware less expensive, but we also had many choices of size, type and brand. Most of the early pioneers were ready to kiss their generators goodbye. Anyone who has run an engine generator as a prime power source for years knows what is involved. Sustained engine operation is a nightmare of maintenance, expense, pollution and noise. We were ready to switch to renewable energy sources and these RE technologies were just becoming affordable and cost-effective. By the beginning of 90s, an independent RE system cost less than one mile of newly installed utility power line. As we enter 1996, a home-sized RE system costs less than 1/4 mile of new power line and is far cheaper than running a generator.

Along with the better, less expensive RE hardware has come heightened public awareness of what renewable energy sources can accomplish. I'd like to think that we at Home Power have helped spread the word about renewables. You don't have to be a Rocket Scientist or Daddy Warbucks to have a home which is independently powered by sunshine, the wind or falling water. All we need is a little technical information about how the systems work and access to competitively priced equipment and services. Let's look at each RE technology and see what we can expect in 1996.

Photovoltaics

Look for continued small cost decreases for photovoltaics. Every PV maker I know is expanding—at least three new PV manufacturing plants are going to come on line during 1996. I know of two major PV makers that sold their entire 1995 production by August of this year. PV warranties to the enduser will continue to increase—we've already seen an increase from ten years to limited warranties as long as twenty years. Along with less cost, we will also see increased performance from photovoltaics. Module efficiencies are reaching the 18% range in single crystal PVs and entering the low 8% regions for amorphous PV. There is a distinct possibility that 1996 will debut PV roofing. Two makers of flexible solar electric roll roofing expect to be to market in 1996.

Wind

The big news in wind generators is small affordable "starter" turbines. Many systems that are

primarily PV-sourced are replacing their backup generator with a wind turbine. We now have a choice of seven different turbines in the 1 kW and under class. These turbines will find their way into many RE systems during the next year. All wind generators will benefit from modern, hi-tech materials like carbon composites, stainless steels, and durable plastics. We will continue to need better, simpler and more affordable towers for these small machines.

MicroHydro

Small hydro turbines will continue to evolve. New, more efficient runners are being tested and implemented. New techniques for higher voltage operation will allow these turbines to be located further from the battery or point of power use. We already have turbines that will work on heads of less than 10 feet. I know of one system in our neighborhood that has a head of 25 feet and a flow of 12 gallons per minute—this adds up to over 4,000 Watt-hours per day.

Inverters

The big news in inverters is sine waves. For most systems, sine wave inverters offer greater performance at only slightly higher prices and slightly lower efficiencies. Look for the introduction of two new sine wave inverters during 1996. Some of these new inverters will be capable of utility intertied operation—they can sell RE to the utility. These utility compatible inverters are moving renewable energy onto the grid. Recent legislation in California and existing legislation in other states is giving the small scale RE producer a better price for their power.

Controls

Controls and power processing electronics will continue to get smarter and more powerful. Of particular note are the DC/DC converters. The next generation of these devices will enable us to place our power sources (solar, wind or hydro) further from our homes. Next year will see many controls being UL or ETL listed. Many systems are going on grid and in areas that require NEC compliance for all the hardware— controls and power processing electronics are no exception.

Power Centers

Power centers are allowing systems to be more compact, NEC compliant, and easier to install. Currently I know of at least four companies making power centers and I expect several more to spring up in the next year. If you are installing your own system, a power center can make it simpler, safer, and instantly palatable to the electrical inspector. The main advantage of using a power center is standardization. In the next year I expect to see less wall space dedicated to "conduit and little boxes".

Batteries

The next year promises better batteries in more varieties. Nickel-iron batteries are once again becoming available. The electric vehicle industry is developing higher efficiency and more rugged lead-acid batteries. New technologies like NickelMetal-Hydride will come closer to being marketable products. After years of only small changes, the battery industry is now moving ahead with newer technologies. Although most of this rush of innovation is prompted by electric vehicles, RE systems will also benefit from better energy storage.

Appliances

Every dollar spent on efficient appliances will save three dollars in RE hardware. The importance of using efficient appliances will not decrease next year. Fortunately, the electrical appliance industry is making major strides in efficiency. Look for better, longer lasting, less expensive compact fluorescent lighting, refrigerators, and electronics. The companies that make mass-marketed appliances are being made more aware that the efficiency of their appliance is important to the consumer. Do your bit, on grid or off, by purchasing the most efficient appliances you can find.

Where are all the HP Cover Stories Today?

I started checking up with the folks who made up our early cover stories. I wondered how they were doing, were they still using RE, and had they changed their systems.

I was amazed at the diversity of response. Some systems had changed hands twice. Each time the property sold, the renewable energy system had actually appreciated in value. Not only are these systems making it easier to sell your homestead, but you'll make money on the system when you sell it along with your homestead.

Many of our cover people are still living on RE at their homestead. Almost all of the systems have grown, with the most common additions being more photovoltaic modules, newer inverters, instruments and wind generators. For example, our cover story in Home Power #13, Jim and Laura Flett had two children. Jim increased the number of PV modules from eight to twelve to accommodate the new kids. Growing families are easily satisfied with RE systems.

In some cases the initial system was so well designed and installed that no changes have been made for six years or more. For example, Victor and Cynthia Rubio's system (cover of Home Power #10) has received no attention other than watering the batteries since it was installed in February of 1989.

The Future of RE

Small scale RE systems are well on the way to eliminating expensive power line extensions. RE systems have already displaced the engine generator as the prime source of power in remote rural areas. Renewable energy has already won the battle off grid. RE won by being less expensive, less hassle, and better for us and our planet.

The next frontier is "on grid." The challenge for the rest of this century is to place the electricity made worldwide by small scale RE systems onto the grid. Technology has made obsolete the power production monopoly held by the utilities for the last century . We now have a better way to meet this planet's electrical power demands. Each individual can own their system and sell their surplus power back to their local utility. Since the bulk of this distributed energy will be solar, power production will coincide with peak power usage. Distributed production will lessen the loading of long distance power lines and eliminate the necessity of constructing new and bigger power lines. Using renewable resources will vastly reduce the pollution associated with nuclear and fossil-fueled power plants. As well, those selling their RE power to the grid will develop the financial security of independent power and maybe even get a second source of income from energy farming.

Fifty Issues of Home Power

I'm looking forward to publishing Home Power on into the next century.

If independent RE systems have come this far in only eight years, the future is going to indeed be bright. I salute each and every one who has made renewable energies part of their lives. You are energy pioneers lighting the way to a better future.

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Author: Richard Perez, c/o Home Power, PO Box 520, Ashland, OR 97520 • 916-475-3179 • E-Mail: [email protected]

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