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If Not Now, When?
By Jody Woodruff
Retired actor and farmer, Patrick Tovatt, asked himself If not now, when? when he moved to Grants Pass, Oregon, a little over a year ago. Sustainability had been on his mind ever since his years as a self described 60s hippy, raising his consciousness through the Whole Earth Catalogue and other like minded publications.
Its a bit shameful that I didnt do something sooner. When I had my farm I tried to be sustainable in that I constructed a homemade solar water heater, did composting and used renewable resources as much as possiblenothing technically demanding. And although Im not against building a fire in the fireplace, burning wood, for example, is polluting. If you really want sustainability, you have to build systems that are energy efficient and as neutral as possible. In any case, my personal journey has been a gradual process over several years before I actually made a commitment to myself that the next time I settled into a place I would do everything possible that I could affordeverything that is sensible.
Consequently, Patrick now lives in a tree shaded house on the Rogue River. Yes, tree shaded but solar. Because he didnt want to lose his trees, solar panels on the roof were not an option. Instead, he installed an eighteen foot long fixed solar array on the sunny, southern exposed end of his one and a half acre lot, producing 3kw of solar energy. Automated and computerized, utility boxes on the back of the array include an inverter, monitors and breakers. A cable runs to the net meter on the side of the house which tells how much electricity is used from PPL and how much solar energy is produced. Like others using solar energy, there is a fascination with watching the meter run forward (using electricity) and backward (gaining credit from the solar energy). Patrick reports that last summer, with lights on, appliances and air conditioning running, his highest electric bill was $19. In winter, it has gone as high as $92 per montha huge change from the often $250 monthly electricity cost for his previous house on the east coast.
The installation of Patricks system took only two days by a solar contractor from Grants Passusing basic off the rack solar materials. The fixed solar arrays are less expensive and not as technically demanding as solar tracking arrays, but he points out that the panels on both fixed and tracking arrays have a useful life of 25 to 30 years. Then individual panels may be replaced as needed. In Patricks words, maintenance is almost nothing, consisting of hosing the dust off the panels and brushing with an RV brush three or four times a year. The more dust, the less efficient, so it pays to keep them clean.
It should be noted that Patricks pipe and clamp structure holding his fixed array could be erected on only a tenth of an acre rather than the larger space he has available. As long as there is a clear, southern exposure, panels may be on the roof of a house, garage or a fixed array.
Patrick is unable to install a rainwater catchment system (see Dec/Jan 06 Sentient Times) because he doesnt have the required metal or tile roof, but he does have an 80 gallon solar hot water heater on top of his attached garage. SOLAHART is also an off the rack item with no moving parts other than the interiors of the valves. Maintenance is the same easy hosing and brushing process as with the solar arrays.
I noted that the garage roof is partially shaded and learned that the water heater operates at a much different efficiency curve than the solar array. Only three or four hours of sun is required to keep at least 90 to 100 degree water in the solar tank at all times. Consequently, hot water is constantly supplied to the water heater in the house, dramatically reducing the need for electricity. In summer, the electric water heater never kicks on at all; from about April through November no electricity is needed for his water heater because in sunny weather there will always be 80 gallons of 140-150 degree water in the solar tank.
The solar heated water is tempered with cold water, reducing it to about 116 degrees when it feeds into the water heater in the house. The two systems connect with a PEX pipe, a cross-link Polyethylene pipe capable of expanding in freezing weather without bursting and has the memory to return to its original shape. Thus a minimum of insulation is required for all climates and circumstances. On the other hand, if the solar heater is placed on the roof of a house, the pipe just drops straight down through the house with little consideration needed for freezing temperatures. Again, more options.
Patrick is tremendously satisfied with his system. He emphasizes that his initial expense was compensated in two ways: almost half of the cost was reimbursed from the Energy Trust of Oregon (866-546-6862), an organization established to encourage solar energy, plus tax breaks for the solar panels, solar hot water heater and his Toyota Prius automobile. Expenditures out of pocket were slightly over $11,000 for the $21,000 solar array and $2400 for the $4500 solar water heater. These figures include everythingsite preparation, trenching, cable, plumbing, installations.
Patrick believes there is no standard estimate of how long it may take to get your money back from a solar investment. He points out that much depends on individual usage and the fact that electric rates will always increase, thus the pay back curve gets steeper as rates go up. Based on his current usage and tax breaks, he calculates that his solar array may pay for itself in ten or eleven years, while the solar water heater could return his investment in seven or eight.
Although Patrick wishes he had acted sooner, he is actually at the forefront of a movement toward utilizing solar energy that is gaining momentum as the reality of global warming and the destructive results of using fossil fuels is finally penetrating the consciousness of more and more people. He comments, If we continue to pollute our water, pour heat, green house gases, soot and particulate matter into the atmosphere, we are moving toward a catastrophic collision with supply and demand. Every support system necessary for human life is reaching a stress level. And because our present administration is not sympathetic to finding long term solutions to these issues, it is even more crucial that conscious individuals take actionwhether it is installing some degree of solar, recycling, driving energy efficient automobiles, holding our public officials accountablewhatever they can do.
And we can hope that an increasing number of people will begin asking themselves, as Patrick did, If not now, when?
Jody Woodruff is a writer living in Talent, Oregon.
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Students at the West Philadelphia Academy for Automotive and Mechanical Engineering in Pennsylvania have designed a car to run on biodiesel and electricity. The car, which has more horsepower than some Porsches and gas mileage comparable to a Toyota Prius, is Off-the-shelf technology according to Simon Hauger, physics teacher and West Philadelphias automotive program administrator. Were super low-budget, he said, so automakers should be cranking them out. The cars carbon-fiber body fits over the chassis and frame assembled from a kit made in Serbia and Montenegro, and a Honda Accord, which the team modified extensively. The students altered the frame to accommodate a 200-horsepower electric motor under the front hood. An upgraded 150-horsepower, turbocharged Volkswagen diesel engine occupies what would be the trunk on most cars. To see a flash presentation on the car go to http://go.philly com/hybridcar.
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