Apple Tree and Solar Panels at Cold Hollow Cider Mill
There are a lot of solar panels springing up around here. Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s people said we would never have much solar electric in New England because the climate was wrong, we have too much cloudy weather and the solar angle is poor. I suspect that several factors have changed this:
1) Solar panels have become much more efficient. This makes it so they can generate more electricity even on cloudy days and low sun angle days.
2) Solar panels have become much cheaper with improvements in production plus simple economies of scale.
3) Government subsidies of solar projects help with the startup costs.
The last one I have mixed feelings on. On the one hand I like solar instead of petroleum, coal or nuclear and it is good that all these projects are happening. However, the government subsidies are actually increasing the price of solar for those of us who don’t get government subsidies to install the panels. This is because if the government says they’ll pay half your upfront costs then you’re willing to spend more. That’s great for the solar companies but bad for the unsubsidized person who wants to install solar themselves. Subsidies warp the market place. Hopefully the subsidies will end soon and in the long run have resulted in both more ‘green’ power and lower long term prices since the volume of production will be higher. We could do away with subsidies on everything and have a healthier economy in the long run.
Picking up Crushed Apples (Pomace) at Cold Hollow Cider
This field of panels is at Cold Hollow Cider in Waterbury, Vermont. The picture’s in negative because I accidentally switched it when sizing it in Photoshop. I thought “cool!” and I left it like that. Very artsy.
At Adams Slaughter where we take our pigs each week they’re putting up a big installation of solar electric panels. I’ve seen several other large installations around as well as many small on-home units.
Next they need to graze some sheep or other livestock in those solar farm fields and double their yield. Electricity plus meat! That will save time mowing.
Outdoors: 20°F/8°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 66°F/64°F
Daily Spark: Your chances of winning the Lotto are almost the same whether you buy tickets or not.
Massachusetts has an initiative called SolarizeMass. It started in 2011. They selected 4 towns in 4 geographic areas in Mass to spearhead the initiative. Our town was one of the 4.
This meant, for homeowners, they could install up to a 10, 000Kw system in 1 of 3 ways: own it outright/get all the credits-grant-tax breaks; a middle sort of program where some of it was financed and you got the credits, etc; and a program where it didn’t cost you a penny and your electric bills were guaranteed at a set rate far lower than your current bills for 20 years. The company that paid to install got all the credits, etc.
As we didn’t have the money, we went with the last one. We got the biggest system, had to do 2 installs, one on the barn, one on the house, and now have an electric bill of $78/mo for the next 20 years. Plus because we don’t use all of our “native power” (that designated for our usage) we also get credits with the electric company.
By Nov. 1 we had a credit of $450. But also by November, we were seeing long periods of cloudy days and far less generation each day. On February 15 we will have completed 1 year and have a good idea of how much of the credit we will need over the winter months. So far we’ve used $40.
The main deterrent to installing a system was that most houses had poor orientation and to do a ground mount added hugely to the cost. I think the first year, only 20 homes had a system installed in our town of 3300 souls.
But a potato grower put a huge system on his barns this year. A company is trying to put a farm system on some farm land but close NIMBYs are trying to block it. And I think maybe 10 or so more systems have gone up on homeowners’ houses.
The state has installed a farm on one of the DPW sites next town over and it’s supposed to supply 30% of their needs.
According to our installing company, Real Goods Solar, the cost of panels has dropped dramatically over the last few years. Here in Western Mass. we’re seeing more PV panel systems as we travel around.
I expect you are right about subsidies, but it did mean we could get a system that we’d not have had otherwise.
A very interesting first hand account. Do you get to continue keeping your accumulated credit or does the utility company take it away at the end of the year. In Vermont we have what they call net metering under which you accumulate a credit like you describe which can be used against your electric usage but then at the end of the year the utilities donate any extra credit back to themselves, that is to say they steal your accumulated credit during the cloudy part of the year so as to guarantee you’ll have to pay for electricity for the first part of the new year. Snarky.
Too bad about the NIMBYs. I know someone who has been dealing with them down in Mass for this exact program. NIMBYs are a nasty creature.
Walter, I had a thought years ago (mostly have abandoned that pernicious activity as I get older). What if, in really hot-summer locations, you erected ground-mount solar panels, elevated a bit, so the ground under them was accessible to a tiller or hand tools, and used the shade/semi shade for mid-summer leafies like lettuces, that tend to bolt or to go bitter in too much sun? Very useful in bright, near-desert environments. Or, along the same lines, pour a pad, highest at the center, to drain off water, and use elevated solar panels (on sturdy, concrete-set pipe supports, of course) to create a shade pad for pigs? Some of he sun-generated power could enable a pump and misters to create a cool environment for the porker set. Saw something like that in, I thing, an extinct Small Farm mag, but without the overhead and solar panels element. Not applicable in your area, with lots of trees and pond opportunities, of course.
Agree totally on the unintended consequences of subsidies. And prohibitions, and tax supported giveaways. Mother Earth News, in its first incarnation, had a fine article on how Rural Electrification, a horribly expensive vote-gathering strategy, killed the vigorous nascent wind generation industry in the thirties. And in the solar field, particularly here in California, subsidization generated a lot of sales effort by installers, and a lot of unnecessarily expensive installations. Where there is tax money there will be tax suckers, like corporate mosquitoes.
Happy New Year, Jeffrieses!
We’re thinking along the same lines… Seems like there must be good things to do with that land under the panels. Our friends in Mass who are putting in a large solar installation are planning to graze lambs under the panels. They fear their cattle might damage the panels rubbing on them but the lambs might be fine. The area they’re putting the panels in used to be pasture. I like the idea of it doing both. As you say, there are some plants that do well with shade or partial sun and the animals like having shade out in the pastures so this could be a good mix. I have read that in the desert where they have the big solar farms they are seeing a surge in the local plants and wildlife due to the shade.
Long ago a C.S.I.R.O. scientist demonstrated that max production in pasture came with 30%tree cover,the shade reduced evaporation & allowed photosynthisis to continue for more of the day.
Interesting. That fits with what we have found works. We like having some trees and brush. So properly placed panels could have a similar effect. As the sun crosses the sky the plants behind them would get sunlight part of the day just like with tree shade.
That is a very beautiful, stunning photograph Walter! I love it. I would love a poster of this. It looks so Ansel Adams-ish. Spectacular!
I am so amazed at all that you and your family do. You accomplish so much, you work so hard, yet you also are so creative and have art in your lives. You are an inspiration.
We’ve had our own solar powered system for more than a decade. And prices on systems and components are, as you note, cheaper then ever. Most people can afford some sort of system…..it is a matter of priorities. We don’t have a cell phones, TV, new car, or a big house. It’s all a trade off. And making your own electricity makes you freer.
Thanks, Mr. Sutton, for the Mother Earth reference. I found some interesting articles like this one: http://www.motherearthnews.com/renewable-energy/advantages-wind-energy-power-zmaz75jazgoe.aspx
People were so innovative then….without all the government interference.
In general, I like solar power, but I am afraid that the subsidies will have unintended consequences. It sure has not seemed to work for so many of the companies that got so much of that pork barrel funds, many are broke, or moving to China.
One other factor that seems to be ignored is the cost savings are based on projected life expectancy. CFL light bulbs are supposed to last X number of years, but often fail early. Solar panels too fail, and output degrades over time. You never know just how long they last. A lighting strike on the system could wipe out the all the panels. A hail storm could wipe them out, strong winds….. high tech can save money, but there is a risk.
Frankly, whatever federal/state/local “subsidies” there are for solar — and I would count property tax rebates into that definition of subsidy (where I live in Maryland, there is a property tax rebate for solar and geothermal amongst other things) — they are far, far, far outstripped by anything and everything that we as a nation get for something called the automobile.
If we really paid the true cost of driving our buggies around, gas really should be somewhere aroung $8/gallon so we can properly pay for the upkeep of roads, bridges, tunnels, etc. In the greater scheme of things, subsidy for renewable energy like solar is just a drop in the bucket. Just my cynical POV of course. ;-)
I agree, which is why I’ve often said we should get rid of _all_ subsidies including those for farming, petroleum, wind, solar, autos, home mortgages (home mortgage deduction is a subsidy). But that would not make me popular as a politician. Good thing I’m not one. Getting rid of subsidies is a political third rail that will get the election lost.
I think I know what you’re saying Walter. I wanted to get solar panels and looked into the program through our power company and the hurdles to do it were phenominal. There was a ton of paper work and only if you did it through their approved installer. All told the price came out to $33,891. I then priced the same system if I did it myself and the cost came out to less than half of that! With the subsidy I would get a 50% discount on that $34K so I would be paying $17K. But if I did it myself I would pay only $14K. That jacked up price made it so that the installers get a huge markup but people pay it because the government is paying for that with the subsidy. This is totally a waste of tax payer dollars.
In Wisconsin we installed a solar hot water system on our south facing roof. Much simpler than photovoltaics–fluid is run through black pipes in a black glassed in box and gets really hot, then the heat is exchanged into water in an insulated tank. We have an on-demand natural gas water heater for back up (like right now, when the high today was 12 F).
We need nothing but the sun for all our hot water from April to October–in fact, we tend to disconnect the on-demand heater half the year. Even in December the panels help because the gas heater is bumping up the temp of the solar preheated water in the tank. You can tell when the warm/hot water in the tank runs out, because your shower temp drops, then comes back up as the gas heater amps up to compensate.
It is amazing what one can do with solar electricity these days. While the efficiency has crept up slowly over the years, people are discovering it’s not so bad in New England providing they have the ideal southern orientation.
My wife and I recently built an sizable off-grid home with a small 1K array. To put that in perspective, it’s about half the size of one of those ground mounted arrays in that awesome “Ansel Adams” picture above.
We do just fine with all amenities…lighting, computer, LED Tv, microwave, toaster, power tools, circulator pumps for back-up radiant heat, 220 volt well pump….We even milled the entire timber frame house off solar power!
We do currently use propane for refrigeration and on-demand hot water but we intend to double the size of our solar array later this year (and get a super energy efficient refrigerator) and eventually add solar hot water to offset the propane.
The price for solar has dropped so much! In 2008, we paid $4920 for all eight, 130 watt Kyocera panels. Today we would only pay $2600!
I installed everything myself so we qualified for a one time 30% tax credit from New York State on all the solar equipment we purchased that year. We spend roughly $17,000 (before credit) for everything and we’ll never see an electric bill in our life.
The idea of having to be certified to hook up to the grid was a big turn-off. Blah!
After learning that power companies, by law, must produce a certain amount of electricity from alternatives, it was my guess they incentivize the certified installer to place the largest array possible on rooftops, without battery back-up, so that the they might reach the legal quota with less hassle. Time and time again I see these massive arrays go up on small houses without battery back-up. It’s disgusting to hear people lose power when the grid shuts down and they have 10’s of thousands dollars worth of solar equipment on their roof. Sad, and I think they’ve been “taken” by both public & private entities looking to keep their hand at the helm of how individuals produce power.
My quick advice to anyone looking to go solar? Never let the certified grid-tie people talk you out of having battery back-up and size your array on actually needs and not payback periods. Better yet…if you can…go off-grid. It’s a treat.
Sounds like you have a great system. Your list of appliances makes another good point about how things have improved with solar electric and such – the electrical needs have gone down. Today’s appliances are generally far more efficient than those of a few decades ago which means that the improved solar panels are able to make a better fit in today’s homes.
On the refrigerator, consider doing a coolth attic style that store winter’s cold like we’re building into our butcher shop. You and we both have the perfect climate for shifting winter around our calendar with our cold long winters and mild summers.
I’ve always wanted to extend our cold winters somehow. I’ve always wanted to do something like Scott Neilsen’s Icebox as seen on page 17 of this old publication. It apparently uses no electricity or gas throughout the year. Impressive yet very involved.
I think I’ll at least try and make a massive block of ice this winter so when summer roles around I can cover it straw and see how long it lasts. Don’t want too big that I can’t pick it up with the tractor though. I let you know how it goes.
I’m very curious to know what you are designing in the attic of the butcher shop. Are there details on this site? Thanks!
See my reply to David B. on this page as he had the same question. The Coolth Attic is theoretical at this point. What we’ve done is build the space for it inside the reefer. It is located in the ‘attic’ so that the cold can sink, taking advantage of the natural physics rather than having to force things. As we work out the details and build it I’ll write more about it. This is one of the last things that we’ll finish off on the butcher shop. It saves money and helps stay off grid but doesn’t actually earn money like the meat cutting, sausage making, smoking and slaughter do so it gets a lower priority. Still, a penny saved is 1.36¢ earned to update Ben Franklin’s famous quote…
Hey Walter! I would like some clarification on “Coolth attic style” I always figured to use winter’s cold for summer cooling I’d need a huge mass (such as all the concrete in your butcher shop) Are you using something else to store coolth specifically for refrigeration?
I’ll write in more detail about the coolth attic in the future but the short story is that the coolth attic is a large mass in the upper part of the butcher shop above the reefer (cold storage and cold work rooms) where we will store winter by chilling down 192,000 lbs of thermal mass through a phase change. I figure that this is theoretically enough to take us well through the summer. We’ll see how it works out in reality. We’ll build progressively larger versions for testing so the final mass may be different, the chemistry of the mass may change and other details are still to be worked out. Think of it as a solid state version of the old ice houses except the lake is inside the building. The R-100 insulation helps a lot – not something they had back in the olden days.
Cool, thank you for the concise answer. I do look forward to more detail as I’ve been trying to figure out how to properly use phase change of water, or some other material, to store coolth. Water has it’s own problems, but the wax materials they have seem to be too expensive.
Thanks for the pointer to Neilsen’s interesting article on the ice box. That is quite a bit more complicated and built upside down of how we’re doing things. In addition to building a coolth attic for the butcher shop we’re also building one for the cottage, on a much smaller scale. Details to come as we build.
Love your site. Thanks for all the stories. Today’s Bird on a wire was great.