Can We Get Off Carbon?

By William Beale
Nissan Leaf image

Several years ago, my wife and I decided that it was time to act on the ever-rising threat of climate change. Climate scientists had repeatedly warned us that we must stop putting carbon into the atmosphere or face the high likelihood of a near-term global collapse of the biosphere, to the deep regret of our grandchildren.

But what could we ourselves do, in our own household and our daily activities? After all, we had already cut our carbon energy usage to roughly 1/4 the national average. Could we cut it to zero? We decided to give it a try.

It happened that a clear opportunity opened to us: we could buy a container load of quite low-cost solar panels, use some ourselves, and pass out the others to friends at cost.

Since I am a do-it-yourself type, I immediately set about making a simple array of mounts for about 2kW worth of PV panels. We got all this working just in time to take up our whole house electric load after the huge wind storm of two summers ago knocked out grid power for our entire region. We on our short dead-end road were left without grid power for a full 11 days.

While our neighbors were scrambling, often unsuccessfully, to find generators and fuel to keep their fridges and freezers going, we squeaked by on our solar electricity through the entire outage with hardly any feeling of deficiency. Fortunately for us, the post-storm period was quite sunny, so our one-day battery storage was barely adequate.

As an immediate result of that experience, we decided to add much more PV and move all of our house appliances—for cooking, heating, hot water, lights, computer, and more—to solar electricity exclusively.

What I actually decided on was a larger system, grid connected, in parallel with the off-grid smaller system we already had. The two of them added to 10kW peak rating. This gave us an excess of solar power, as well as flexibility and redundancy.

So, we went ahead and traded out all of our propane driven appliances and replaced them with electric ones. And in addition, we bought our first ever new car: an all-electric Nissan Leaf, trading our already frugal Honda Fit to a granddaughter, with the caveat that we could call it back at any time if we needed the longer range.

The result of all of this was indeed what we had hoped. My wife particularly enjoys the induction cookers, which are neat, clean, and, amazingly, heat only the bottom of the pot sitting on them, not the rest of the stove, and not the room they are in. And also, they have highly competent control systems: set and forget, and come back to a job done perfectly every time.

So. No carbon, at least for daily household operation. And, far better service in every way. Hardly a sacrifice!

Costs? Every one of the things we bought had an average cost. This includes the stove, heat/cooling pump, water heat pump, LED lights, and car, which had the same out-of-pocket total cost as the typical passenger car bought last year.

And of course the PV system itself brought costs. As a result of careful shopping and some personal labor, its total cost was the same as a quite ordinary, used pickup truck of the kind frequently purchased by my neighbors without much thinking. This is also half of what some of them have paid for those obese, show-off pickups (also an altogether too common a purchase around here).

And again on the positive side, so far the Leaf has saved us about $800 in gasoline we would otherwise have put into the Honda and cost us nothing to run above what we already had invested in the PV. Our electricity bill stays at zero; in fact, the electric company seem to owe us about $200 so far this year for the large excess we gave back to them.

So when a neighbor stops by and, after a few words of envy, adds "Musta took a lotta money for all that! I wish I had that much to spend, and the time it to put it up," I consider my response. So far, I have made some mild, non-confrontational reply, heeding the wisdom of my guardian angel on my right shoulder, and not that hot little devil on my left, whispering that I answer with, "I paid for it by not buying that ludicrous pickup you are sitting in, and all your jaunts to the west coast, and I got the time by not mowing your two-acre lawn, or watching that TV you spend your weekends dozing in front of."

So far, I remain safe, but tomorrow the temptation of the little demon might prevail, with possibly fatal result.

Or, a happier thought, those with the persuasive powers needed may somehow be able to change the ambitions of my good neighbor and his millions of like-thinkers, from chrome tail pipes emitting noxious vapors, to solar electricity, emitting nothing but what we want and may even need.

William Beale is a long-retired R&D engineer (Sunpower, Inc, Athens, OH) whose profession and hobby is improving thermal machines.