Besides the positive environmental benefits of RE, it also offered the allure of financial independence from the utilities, instead of a lifetime of utility bills. “I get asked how could I spend so much money on a system. But it’s not about saving money—or making money,” Rob explains. “It’s just something we wanted to do. It is so rewarding and satisfying.
“We prefer only to use what electricity we have—or do without. Living off the grid also means paying attention to the weather, which is the lifestyle we enjoy.”
Rob and Marcia first tackled the efficiency upgrade challenges that come with a 100-year-old house. By using wood for space heating, and implementing efficiency and conservation measures, the Appel-Lowrys’ monthly electricity use is a modest 240 to 310 KWH compared to an average American household, which uses at least three times that much. For cooking, Rob and Marcia rely on their wood heater and a propane range.
Besides upgrading household appliances to make their home as energy efficient as possible, the Appel-Lowrys practice energy-wise habits, like drying laundry on a clothesline outside and cooking with a Global Sun Ovens solar cooker, weather permitting. Implementing these low-tech fixes, says Marcia, has other benefits: “In the summer, using the solar cooker instead of the conventional oven keeps the house from getting too hot.”
From the start, solar electricity was a perfect match to support Rob and Marcia’s ranching efforts. Abundant sunlight, especially during the summer months, made the decision to install a solar-direct water pump to irrigate their expansive vegetable gardens, a sheep pasture, and landscape plantings easy.
Four 160 W BP modules were installed just across the creek from the main house to provide electricity for a Conergy Solar Force piston pump, which moves water from Willow Creek and disperses it to their gardens, pasture, and the newly planted trees and shrubs that will one day serve as a windbreak. These days, during the winter, the array output is switched from the pump and routed to help charge the main RE system’s 1,560 amp-hour battery bank.
In 2004, Rob installed the PV modules from the South Dakota home on pole mounts adjacent to the modules used primarily for water pumping. Next, a solar hot water system (two 4- by 10-ft. Heliodyne flat-plate collectors) was installed on the roof of the main house. The system provides close to 100 percent of the household’s hot water. A Bosch propane on-demand water heater is plumbed in-line with the solar hot water system to boost the temperature of the solar-heated water when needed.
To cover their remaining electricity needs, and provide energy when the PV system doesn’t—during cloudy weather and at night—Rob and Marcia decided to take advantage of the terrific wind resource at their site.
“I wanted to use both resources,” says Rob. “The sun is much more reliable around here, but this way the two systems can complement each other.”