Solar Power (part 1)

Written by peterkienle on January 3, 2009

In the last year or so the term ‘alternative power’ has really come to the forefront again. High fuel prices, talk about peak oil and dirty coal. Good thing, too, because we need to talk about it. Especially during 2008 I kept getting emails from countless action groups and organizations such as the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund mentioning it. The issue is actually on people’s minds….

For some reason it has been on my mind since I was a teenager. If you have read some of my other entries here you will be aware that big, complex engineering holds high fascination for me. All sorts of power plants fall into that category. From giant dams to nuclear power plants, from wind turbines to geothermal. And there are of course the more esoteric, fantastic or futuristic things such as fusion, solar power satellites, deep geothermal, tides, etc.

But what is an ordinary citizen supposed do to about all of that? Sure, you can contribute to some of the organizations who lobby for clean power and oil independence in Washington. But still, somehow somebody has to do the dirty work, build something, make something work. Only scientists get to do the cutting edge stuff. We consumers just have to wait until product becomes available at our local hardware stores – sometimes ten years after you first read about it in Scientific American, often never.

Here’s the first part of our ongoing story:
We bought our home in 1995. After paying rent all my apartment-life it came as quite a shock that not only could you do stuff to your house and garden but unless you wanted to call somebody to fix that drain or dig that hole YOU had to do it yourself.

When we moved into the house we had a brand new gas furnace installed. It was fairly efficient but a few really cold winters convinced us that some other heat source might be more economic. I spent the first half of 2001 looking for a local contractor who knew how to install a geothermal heating & cooling system. Around May I found somebody – 90 minutes drive south. In August, in the course of a few days, the system was installed. We spent a bit over $10,000 on it but it works much more efficient than the gas furnace. Since then the gas prices have gone up even more and my latest calculations show that we did break even already.

After that I started seriously looking into solar power. But, really, in the first years of this decade nobody wanted to hear about it. My car mechanic and my dentist both told me they had solar panels installed in the early seventies after the first energy crisis. Their experience was not a good one – non-standardized systems, no spare parts available and nobody close by to maintain it. So, for about six or seven years I kept looking around for somebody to help me. Sure, there was (and is) plenty of the needed material for sale at places on the internet. There are plans, layouts, articles. But I really wanted somebody to come to my house, look at the property and tell me whether this was feasible or a pipe dream.

In late 2007 there was a little press about a few houses being built in the city of Bloomington, IN (my hometown). Some of these houses had solar panels on their roofs. Through the real estate company I found the person who had put these on. And guess what. He lives about a mile from my house, is a well known rock drummer in town and happens to be the only certified Solar Power Assessor in the whole state of Indiana.

(to be continued)

Copyright © by Peter Kienle