By Mary Wildfire 2010

Is it possible to run a house on solar power here in one of the cloudiest parts of the country, where coal-based electricity is alleged to be cheap?

Well, Don Alexander and I are doing it.

Our new solar power system began operating, fittingly, on Thanksgiving Day. It has four 220-watt panels, for a total of 880 watts.

Since we have only had it across the shortest, darkest days of the year, it's hard to say how it will fare in year round operation. So far the most we've taken in is 5 kilowatt hours on a perfectly clear day.

But even on the darkest days we get some power, and snow cover amplifies weak light wonderfully. I've seen 140 watts coming in while it was snowing.

The panels are not on our roof but out in our yard, because we built the house up against the woods on the west side for afternoon shade.

Solar panels are more efficient at lower temperatures, so that is another advantage to setting them in the yard rather than on a roof where heat from the house will lower the efficiency.

Don decided not to spend nearly a thousand dollars on a mounting rack. He set three pressure-treated six-by-sixes into concrete, and onto these he mounted two big racks made from lumber. Each holds two panels, and can be adjusted to change the tilt seasonally.

Our system is off-grid, but we still have a line connected to the neighbors' house. So far we have drawn a total of about ten kilowatt-hours of coal power, over about 10 weeks.

The key to living well with off-grid power is to find ways to lower your energy use. We have a conventional refrigerator, but it's a modern one, much more efficient than older ones, and Don has plans to insulate it further.

It uses about a kilowatt-hour a day, more in summer and less in winter. He has already modified some LED lights, so that we are able to read through these winter evenings, using a piddling 2 watts of energy each!

We also have some compact fluorescent lights for cooking and other uses. We use laptop computers, which use less energy than desktops, but he has plans to cut their appetites.

The microwave, blender, well-pump and the recharger for the electric drill all use high power, but only for brief periods.

Don modified his electric piano so it uses hardly any power. He's still trying to figure out how to do that with the cordless phone and answering machine.

The total cost of the solar system was $9076.

We will be able to take 30% of this off federal income tax, as well as the maximum $2000 off state taxes.

Likely we won't owe that much this year, but in both cases it's possible to roll the remaining credit over to future years. So our total cost for the off-grid system should be in the neighborhood of $4350 after tax credits.

The panels should be good for thirty years, albeit with very slowly decreasing efficiency. I know people who are still using panels thirty or more years old. Most of the other components should also last many years. The exception is the batteries, expected to last 5 to 7 years.

Does it make sense economically to go this route if you have access to grid power?

Not in West Virginia, where the grid power, 98% of it is coming from coal. That is "cheap." I use the quotation marks because I estimate that 95% of the real costs of coal are "externalized," meaning they're not in our power bills.

I'm talking about the health effects from the pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants, the damage to our mountains from the mining, the cost of repairing the damage to our roads and bridges caused by coal trucks allowed to exceed the limits of any other trucks, acid rain, climate change, the damage caused to communities where coal is washed or where the toxic sludge generated leaks into water supplies.

However, I must acknowledge that spending the money to set up a solar energy system doesn't exempt me from paying the 95% of the costs of coal not billed directly.

Don and my son have asthma, for example. But it feels better to stop contributing to the problems, and the independence is a plus when the grid goes down, as it did for a week before Christmas, and in the event that world events lead to a permanent end to grid power, a scenario I think is likely in the next decade or two.

Rick and Ann Kent, also in Roane County, have two separate off-grid solar systems. One was purchased by a previous owner in the eighties.

It powers most of the appliances in their cabin, although it only totals perhaps 100 watts. A newer one with 500 watts currently runs only a freezer, a 5.8 cubic foot SunDanzer.

The Kents use the bigger L-16 batteries rather than the "golf cart" T-105's. They have a super-efficient CFL light, using 5 watts to light the whole room.

They also run a laptop computer and sometimes watch DVD's on a small television. For them, being off-grid was not really a choice, as the power company wanted $26,000 to run lines to them.

Best things to avoid if you're contemplating getting your electric appetite down to a level that makes solar affordable: electric heating, air conditioning , water heating, and freezers, and big outdoor lights.

Also, modern gas stoves with ovens that (stupidly) require electronic ignition for the oven, using 400 watts the whole time it's on.

A good first step is to get a Kill-a-Watt to measure exactly how much power you're using for each appliance. After finding ways to get your consumption down to a much lower level, you'll be ready to decide whether a grid-tied or off-grid system works best for your situation, and find advice on choosing components.

I'm starting a network of people already living with renewable power to advise others in their neighborhoods, which I'm calling Coal Free WV.

If you have a windmill, solar panels or a microhydro system and you're willing to talk to people interested in setting up their own, please contact me at wildfire@spectrumz.com