What’s a family living in an off-grid solar home to do when it’s dark and cloudy for three solid months out of the year? Call it global climate change or just an odd cycle in local weather patterns, but for the past two years, my partner Joy and I have been dumping gas into the “backup” engine generator far too often. “Off-grid” was becoming “on-generator” during the long and sun-scarce winter months.
Our property has a great, shade-free site for capturing solar energy, and we take advantage of this with a solar-electric (photovoltaic; PV) system and our home’s passive solar design. But October, November, and December are nearly always cloudy months. This, coupled with the short days of early winter, wasn’t sufficient to keep our system’s battery bank charged up without us grudgingly firing up the generator. This year, we decided that it was time for a change. Meeting our need for a consistent supply of renewable energy was our ultimate motivation, and installing a wind generator to supplement our solar-electric array was the solution.
One thing our site definitely has going for it is a wind resource. Although notoriously windy Lake Superior is 13 miles to the north, our property’s elevation offers consistent, if somewhat lower, wind speeds. More times than not it is windy at the house, so a hybrid PV and wind-electric system seemed like the ticket to putting our generator use behind us.
When I first considered wind power, I had dreams of batteries charging at night and during the cloudy months of our northern Wisconsin winters. I had initially considered installing more PV modules, but even doubling the size of our array wouldn’t make more electricity at night or during inclement weather (2 x 0 = 0)—even I knew that. So wind power was clearly the answer. But wind-electric systems were completely new to me—tall tower, moving parts, winches I knew nothing about, and lots of instructions to read over and over—I had a steep learning curve ahead of me.
I’m a pretty average guy, with an average income. Although I’m totally hooked on renewable energy (RE), I also live within a budget, and I knew wind energy would be relatively expensive to capture. My dad kept asking me why I didn’t just connect to the utility grid. Tying in with the grid would only cost about $8,000, but relying on its predominately coal-fired generation would put me into the fossil-fueled generation loop that’s causing mercury contamination in Lake Superior, and contributing to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Generating renewable energy locally is important to us. With this in mind, the grid just seems so far away when the renewable solutions are right at home.