I Sing the Solar Electric

If you have even a single solar panel working on your homestead, you may be as frustrated as I am by the general image of solar electric generation presented in the mainstream media.

I can’t count how often one hears alternative energy, particularly solar, denigrated. It is almost always referred to as limited, usually because it gets dark every night (none of these people have ever heard of something called a “battery,” apparently) or cloudy. It’s commonly condemned as too expensive, both to the consumer and in the manufacturing process.

If you have even a single solar panel working on your homestead, you may be as frustrated as I am by the general image of solar presented in the mainstream media.

I regard these as damaging stereotypes that ring false to most people who own and use solar arrays.

Solar Electric in Alaska

My region, Southeast Alaska, also suffers from damaging stereotypes: too much rain (among those who understand that we aren’t frozen year ’round) and too dark in the winter (even among those who understand we don’t get 24 hours of darkness in the winter, as some regions of our state do).

Because others judge my lifestyle according to these stereotypes, perhaps it’s time to speak out, to talk about what solar can do rather than what solar can’t do. To sing the solar electric.

True, we live in a temperate rain forest. Around the winter solstice, our daylight dwindles to around 6 hours. While the nearest town, Haines, gets less rainfall than many others in Southeast Alaska, and a little less winter daylight than some, I know of successful solar arrays in almost every community in the region.

Solar Electric in Alaska

When people express surprise that anyone would ever consider using solar in rainy, cloudy Southeast Alaska, I point out that Alaska powers its nautical markers with solar panels.

Think about that: ours is a maritime region. Lives and livelihoods depend on a vast system of isolated marker lights—reef markers, channel buoys, harbor entries, lighthouses and more—all of which require constant, unfailingly reliable power to operate. And yet, we trust solar panels to provide that power!

Obviously, solar technology exceeds the commonly held perception of its abilities.

Ironically, I took the time to become a true solar devotee for other reasons than those listed above.

Solar Electric vs. Wind Generators

The off-grid property we purchased came with a pair of wind generators. I enjoyed the challenge these machines presented, the dynamic, wild, adventurous method of energy harvest they represented. When the smaller, older generator broke down, we installed a solar array to replace its production. Even so, I kept my focus on the remaining wind generator.

As a result, I experienced nine years of unease, expense, pain, and stress. I won’t tell the whole sordid story here, but I worked hard to maintain and repair that generator and an updated version of it, trading off between the two to maintain power during breakdowns.

The Lightbulb Moment

One day, while sweating up the generator tower yet again, I glanced down at our solar array, and for the first time truly appreciated its years of reliable, quiet, repair-free power production. A solar powered light bulb lit up in my brain, and I began to look into superseding the wind generator’s power output with solar.

If you have even a single solar panel working on your homestead, you may be as frustrated as I am by the general image of solar presented in the mainstream media.
Image courtesy of AKZeigers.com

I soon learned that solar technology had not stagnated, nor had it progressed slowly since we installed the first array. Instead, it’s booming! That means vastly expanded choices, impressive leaps in production technology, and, best of all for our needs, greatly reduced prices!

Last summer I installed four 260-watt, 30-volt monocrystalline solar panels. I tied them to our battery bank with a Midnight Solar charge controller. These replaced a bank of four 64-watt composite panels and a small charge controller.

We feel that the resulting power production is phenomenal. The new array harvests solar power at much higher rates in far less favorable sun conditions, including overcast and full shade! We connected the panels at the end of April. Since then, we have not run the wind generator at all.

When we installed the new panels, we planned to replace our eight lead acid 6-volt batteries, which began to show signs of wearing out at the 7-year mark. After less than a week with the new panels and controller, the batteries appear to have “healed”—they hold their charge like a brand new bank!

Further, once we added up the costs, we realized that the new array cost almost $1000 less than the old array had!

The truest test of the system comes in the months ahead, as we lose daylight approaching the winter solstice. We assume that we’ll need the wind generator to augment the solar panels by mid-October or early November through about mid-March next year. However, we may do just fine with the solar panels alone, even through the darkest days of winter.

Growth of the Solar Power Industry

A positive feedback loop appears to be developing currently in the solar power industry. As more people turn to solar energy, more money will become available to invest in improving the product. Prices will continue to lower, research and development will continue to seek out more cost-effective manufacturing methods, more providers will enter the competition for available funds.

Any technological advances will add to the strong base of existing solar panels. While manufacturers cautiously predict about 25 years usefulness, in reality, almost every undamaged solar panel built continues to produce electricity. Most of the panels in my off-grid neighborhood are more than 30 years old now. A small investment could last a lifetime. Our original array, currently stored, can return to use at any time if needed.

Do What Works for You

Of course, these are my experiences and opinions. Your mileage may vary. We calculated our electrical needs, designed an array to match and exceed those needs, and installed it. My point remains: solar power works better than many would have us believe, even in one of the worst weather regions of the United States.

If you have even a single solar panel working on your homestead, you may be as frustrated as I am by the general image of solar presented in the mainstream media.

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  1. almas.nathoo says:

    Hi everybody,
    Thanks for wonderfully information to us and I was so much interested to have solar panels reason being I get lot, lot of sun in front house and in the afternoon the sun come the backside so I will be great. Although with panel I am benefitting from rain water and natural light so with you kind help I am In a perfect position to stay away from solar.
    Thanks once

  2. We had the same issue with solar in Maine. The charts all say it just can’t be done because there aren’t enough sunny days….. Our two small panels and one battery run everything we need at our place. We rarely have to turn the lights out a little early.
    We would also be interested ingetting a turbine, but there is no hurry.

    1. Mark Zeiger says:

      Sarah, I wonder if maybe those prediction charts need to be updated to the newer technology? I had a devil of a time figuring out what my new array produced, working on the old model of 12/24/36 volts. It’s all a bit old fashioned now!
      Good luck with the turbine. We’re in our monsoon season here, now, so ironically, in August, I’m running our wind charger some. Mostly, it’s to keep it from seizing up from lack of use, but it does round off our charge when little solar’s coming in on really socked in days.
      Perhaps it’s unfair of me to piggy back this observation onto a reply to your comment, but I have to say, looking at all the misinformation, confusion, and outright fear generated by the upcoming total solar eclipse, no wonder solar power is so misunderstood in this country. It’s the 21st Century, one would hope that we would all be a bit more scientifically oriented than we seem to be!

    2. Jessica Lane says:

      Hey there fellow Mainer! I know quite a few people in the state that are successfully using solar exclusively. One farm near us had turbines, but switched back.

  3. Sandrine Ferwerda says:

    Good point! Solar technology is advancing so much nowadays, the possibilities seem endless…
    We’re off the grid as well which (in our case) means we are 100% solar-dependent for our electricity needs – we do have got a gasoline generator as a backup. We’ve got a fridge & freezer combo, dishwasher, washing machine, vacuum cleaner and electric oven; a stereo and my husband’s electric guitar; incubators and electric brooders for the chicks, computers, phones and power tools. The system also supports the pumps – a pump to get the water from our (140m / 460 ft) borehole, a pressure pump that makes our showers more than just a tiny stream, a pump to get the water running through the radiators. We have a bed & breakfast and sometimes our guests bring hair dryers or water cookers, and the system has been designed to support all that. We might buy a solar oven though so I can do a bit more baking without draining the batteries – I make our own bread but also bake bread & cakes for other people, and especially in winter (shorter days) it takes a toll on the system.

    1. Mark Zeiger says:

      Wow, Sandrine, you are a rock star! I’m in awe of all you power off your array–yours is a much more ambitious set up than ours.
      Would you consider telling us the name and whereabouts of your B&B? I think Jessica would allow that. I for one would choose a solar powered B&B over any other in the neighborhood.

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    Linda, we use our off-grid power system far less than we might.

    We use it to light our home, recharge portable batteries, power small appliances and a home theater. We don’t have a refrigerator or freezer, and we heat our water with wood, so none of those draw from the solar array or wind generator. We probably have the capacity for one or both, particularly if we seek out DC appliances designed to draw less power, but we’ve never pursued that. Our lifestyle just isn’t geared toward a lot of power usage, in general. Mostly, though, the fridge or freezer would have to come to our place on my aging back!

  5. Can I ask, what do your solar panels power? Fridge? Freezers? Hot water system? Lights? Power points for small appliances? I’m curious about off grid solar, but my off grid would need all of the above…

    1. Jessica Lane says:

      I believe Mark uses them for all those types of things, but hopefully he will chime in and say for sure.

  6. Mike the Gardener says:

    Thanks Mark. I never thought of those things when considering a windmill Solar panels are starting to come way down in price. Hopefully that trend continues.

  7. very interesting and informative article.

  8. Thank you for the information, I’ve always wanted to invest in a solar array, & reading your article just fanned the flames!
    Plus, what a great title too! A perfect nod to Ray Bradbury

    1. Mark Zeiger says:

      Ah, thank you, Laurinda. I meant to look it up. I’d forgotten that Ray Bradbury had used “I Sing the Body Electric”–I got it from the old Fame song!

      If you’re interested, I cover the whole process of switching our emphasis from wind to solar on our blog, http://AKZeigers.com. Search “Power Shift.”

  9. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Mike,

    Good question! Yes, wind generators are all essentially wind-driven alternators. I don’t know for sure, but I guess the cost comes from the engineering required to make them work well. Problems include getting the most efficient drive in varying wind speeds, regulating machine movement to minimize damage (side furling mechanisms, braking, etc.) and controllers. A wind generator basically needs to endure getting the Mickey thrashed out of it while delivering power. By contrast, a solar panel has no moving parts (other than trackers, if used).

    People make their own wind generators. I’ve never tried it, but I understand it can be done for a lot less cost than buying a commercially produced one.

  10. Mike the Gardener says:

    Why are windmills so expensive? Aren’t they simply turning an alternator?