Lance moved onto the property in 1979. In the late 1970s, residential solar-electric equipment was in its infancy, very expensive—and beyond Lance’s budget. Connecting to the grid was expensive and outside of his scope for a self-sufficient homestead. So Lance chose to live with no electricity at all, until he saved enough money to buy his first Arco 32-watt (W) solar-electric (photovoltaic; PV) module. With this small system, he ran a single DC fluorescent light, and “never had to buy kerosene again for the lanterns.”
Jennifer joined Lance on the land in 1991, after already spending some time living off-grid with a one-module DC system at her ski lodge in the Cascades. Over the years, they have slowly grown their solar-electric system. Living within the limits of the solar energy they could harvest gave them increased economic flexibility. They added to their system when the money was available, and during lean times, didn’t put any money into it at all. Folks who rely on propane and generators don’t generally have this option—they are dependent on continually purchasing fuel.
Along with increasing the capacity of their PV array, the Barkers also purchased newer, higher performance inverters and controllers as they became available. “Our system was pretty much built that way, one step at a time,” says Lance. “Since I’m not an inventor, everything we do is with off-the-shelf equipment.” Over 28 years, the system has slowly grown to 44 modules—and 5,000 watts (5 KW) of solar-electric independence.
For space and water heating, as well as cooking, Lance and Jennifer use wood they harvest from their sustainably managed woodlot. “Biomass accumulates here faster than it decomposes,” says Lance. “This material is going to burn—and we get to choose how and when! So we have wood for ample thermal energy here, and that makes it easier for us to avoid using propane.” Their modest-sized, passive solar home is built to take advantage of solar gain in winter and is well insulated. Plus, Jennifer says, “Any time I’m cooking on the woodstove, it’s producing enough heat for our small house.” A coil in a Pioneer Maid wood cookstove produces hot water for domestic use.
Lance and Jennifer took a hard line on having a generator—they just didn’t do it! Instead, they invested all the money that they didn’t spend on generators, generator sheds, fuel, and maintenance into expanding the PV system. The guiding principle they used to develop their RE system is in many ways 180 degrees from the standard design approach used for off-grid sites. “It’s what we call production determination of a system,” says Lance, “rather than load determination. You produce electricity, and that’s how much you have available to use. It’s not really a difficult concept, but it’s very different from the normal North American way of doing things.”
Lance sums up their basic philosophy: “We have adequate solar-electric capacity to support our base loads, and we add to those base loads only as we can afford to add to our array.” The Barkers’ base load (and dates of installation) consists of these individual energy uses: lighting (1981), water pumping (1982), refrigeration (1984), computers (1991), and a chest freezer (1994). These total 1.2 KWH per day, including losses from battery inefficiency. Over the years, the Barkers have been able to reduce their base load by switching from an AC Vestfrost to a DC SunDanzer freezer that uses less energy and doesn’t incur additional inverter conversion losses. Beyond the base loads, Lance says, “All other electrical loads—of which we have many—are discretionary, depending on energy availability. That philosophy has remained the same, even though our system has expanded in ways that were unimaginable in the beginning, because the hardware simply did not exist.”