It's a gorgeous day full of singing birds and sunlight. Beautiful, streaming sunlight. Soon the photovoltaic system that added some aggression to my passive solar house in the mountains of western Virginia will be 1-year-old, the time of reckoning.
Getting off the grid has always been nirvana for 1970s back-to-the-landers like me. With net-metering-a 21st century update of the dream-I am still connected, selling excess electricity in summer when the sun is high, and buying electricity at night and in winter. The grid has become my battery, although my home system includes batteries for three sunless days of essential services if the grid is knocked out: water pump, stove, freezer and playing old movies through the storm. In rural Appalachia, self-sufficiency is the traditional way of doing things.
Electricity has become a beacon of hope in the smog of our energy crisis. With President Obama's promise to get plug-in cars on the market by 2015, home-grown electricity could help wean Americans from foreign oil, which is largely used for transportation.
But our largest source of electricity is coal, which is also the largest culprit in environmental damage of all kinds, from mountaintop removal mining to acid rain to climate change.
Nuclear plants have waste issues, huge costs overruns and terrorism target potential. Natural gas plants are better but not by much. Even renewable sources can have unacceptable impacts: Industrial wind plants in the East destroy forests, while industrial solar arrays in the West destroy deserts. Even when well-sited, the thousands of miles of new transmission lines needed to transport power from green sources destroy everything in their path. What can a compassionate conservationist support?
Distributed generation, that's what.
On-site production of electricity-called distributed generation, or DG for short-is the cheapest, quickest, fairest way out of the energy conundrum. Site specific generation from small-scale solar, wind, geothermal and biofuels installations, combined with the new administration's energy conservation/efficiency programs, offers virtually unlimited resources for stimulating local jobs aimed at literally empowering local communities. From the widespread interest expressed in my own solar system, it seems that there is enormous pent-up consumer demand.
The paradigm of centralized power plants has been rendered obsolete by technology and terrorism. Consider how much stronger our nation would be against disasters both natural and criminal if schools, hospitals, community centers, businesses, nursing homes, farms, mobile homes, houses and apartment buildings across the country made enough electricity to pump drinking water and refrigerate food.
Americans haven't enjoyed that kind of independence since they drank from dippers and packed pond ice in sawdust for the summer icebox. Decentralization of electricity brings a new perspective to the old rallying cry of democracy, "Power to the People!"
It will mean redesigning distribution lines and decoupling fixed costs from electricity rates to entice utility companies, traditionally hostile to DG. It will take new tax incentives, interconnection standards, building codes and educational programs for electricians, builders, businesses and homeowners. It will take fleets of people at town, county, state and federal levels all conspiring to allow consumers to take control of power sources.
What better use of stimulus money could there be?
Maybe I'm not the one to be talking about economics, which is based on the idea that people always act in their own best interests. My solar system contradicts that basic principle. At current electric rates, it will take me 45 years to pay it off. My own personal back-to-the-land trip will be well under way by then. Rates will undoubtedly go up, but buying this system was economically unsound and I'm proud of it, because I love to confound economists.
Taking responsibility for one's own environmental impact is what much of the talk about "greening" is really about. Studies show that when people see direct consequences of their actions-say, turning off a computer for the night-they change their behavior and use significantly less energy.
It happened to me. After my new system was installed, I checked the meter often for the fun of watching it run backward. And it did, through spring and summer. Now, it's showing 820 kilowatt hours used from the grid in 11 months-roughly what an average U.S. household uses in one month. At the end of a year, my utility company will pay me for any excess production. I don't really care about that, but I do want the meter to reach zero by next month to give me 100 percent solar electricity for the year, so-I'm powering off, goodbye!