MAIL: Solar Energy in Southeast Alaska

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Living remotely and off-grid can be challenging at times, and one of our biggest challenges has been to provide electricity.

Is it for real or is it a joke? It is June 25, 2012—a dark, rainy, windy summer day in northern Southeast Alaska. It seems like the norm this year, one of the wettest and coldest on record. It is raining so hard and the cloud layer is so low I can barely make out Lincoln or Hump Islands, a scant 71⁄2 miles from our remote cabin on Shelter Island near Juneau. I shouldn’t complain too much; after all, it’s by choice that I live in a rain forest.

As I look out the window, I smile. It is 11:43 in the morning and 203 W of solar electricity is being generated. Our PV system is working, generating enough energy to power three laptop computers, occasional overhead lights, and our energy-efficient dishwasher. By 5:30 p.m., it is raining harder and visibility is less than 3 miles. Lincoln and Hump Islands have disappeared into a thick gray abyss and solar output is down to 174 W, but generating more electrical energy than we are consuming. I like solar energy.

My wife Eileen, children Jayleen and Jason, dog Merlin, and I have been living in our three-bedroom, one-bath, 1,300-square-foot cabin for 10 years. We have an electric dishwasher, four laptop computers, microwave, freezer, washer, toaster, blender, hair dryer, TV, water pump, and switchable lights in all of the rooms. We also have a propane cook stove, fridge, and clothes dryer.

Living remotely and off-grid can be challenging at times, and one of our biggest challenges has been to provide electricity. Conserving and using less has always been a part of living remotely, but when the cost of gasoline hit $5 a gallon, I decided that I was really going to start using less fuel and, in my own little way, try to make the United States less dependent on oil from the Middle East. I started using our skiff to travel to town instead of our bigger boat; the skiff has three to four times the fuel economy. We also invested in PV and wind generation systems.

Sometime around 2006, I had a wonderful talk with a world oil quantities guy for British Petroleum. I asked him, “What can we do about the high price of gasoline?” He laughed and said, “I told my father that he should probably think about getting a more fuel-efficient car.” He then continued, “I think Americans should start driving cars that get better gas mileage as well—look at all these vehicles running around getting 8 to 12 miles a gallon. They should start using less energy in their everyday lives, consume less, and the price will go down.”

Many Americans believe that energy produced from solar-electric modules or solar collectors is some kind of joke. They have read or heard somewhere that solar panels are inefficient, that they only work in direct sunlight and for only a few hours a day, they cost way too much, they become worthless as they age, and there is no way to store the energy for more than a short period of time. This negativity goes on and on.

Germany (a country more known for its cloudy days than sunny days) has been planning ahead for its energy needs. Not only did Germany have the foresight to start investing in solar years ago, it also updated its electrical grid to handle electricity from renewable energy. Saudi Arabia, the world’s number one exporter of oil, has just announced it plans to invest $109 billion in renewable energy by 2030. It is obvious they would rather sell oil at $80+ a barrel—to those who are stupid enough to pay that much—than to use the oil themselves. They know that someday the oil reserves will run out, but the sun will continue to shine favorably on their solar panels.

Since the middle of March this year, our household has burned less than 3 gallons of diesel fuel in our cabin generator—98% of our electrical needs have been supplied by our solar-electric system. For eight months of the year, March through October, the system saves us $150 a month in fuel costs. That is $1,200 a year—and in a rain forest. 

In spite of the many articles I have read that tell us solar will never be mainstream, I continue to believe solar energy has a very bright future. The United States will probably not be the major force behind solar energy farms; it will be developing countries that are willing to put up with some of the challenges that are required to live and work with solar energy, such as consuming less of everything and planning how and when they use energy. The push will also come from developed countries that are willing and smart enough to plan for the future and invest in upgrading the hardware and software to integrate renewable energy with the grid, with the insight to understand the long-term benefits of using renewable energy and the positive effects it will have on the world’s ecosystem and the people who live here.

As I listen to the rain hit our metal roof on this windy, dark, cold, rainy summer day, I smile. Solar power, even in Southeast Alaska, is real.

Jay Beedle • Shelter Island, Alaska

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