MAILBOX: Simple Solar Changed My Life

Beginner
Dennis O'Brien's PV array.

I live in the country in a small cabin on the edge of civilization, but still on-grid. I didn’t want a large solar power system to totally replace the grid, just something big enough to allow me to survive during outages, and also reduce my overall use of nonrenewable energy. So I went to a presentation given by a solar contractor and neighbor, Kelly Larson, who helped me decide to develop an independent battery storage system.

I needed four basic components: solar modules, a charge controller, batteries, and an inverter. Kelly, who also teaches people how to become solar contractors, checked my plans for safety, and then helped me order the components. The total cost was about $1,200. The modules were rated at about 300 watts. We found a spot near my cabin that got enough sun. I learned that closer is better, as low-voltage electricity has a significant loss of energy the further it travels, and the thicker copper wire that would compensate for that is very expensive.

I built my own wooden frame for the modules, with adjustable tilt. This has given me a heightened awareness of the seasons and the sun’s angle as it crosses the sky.

Every component came with detailed plans: fastening the PV modules to the wooden frame and connecting the wiring to the modules, charge controller, batteries, and inverter. Kelly inspected and approved it before making the final connection, confirming that a person with no special training could still build a simple solar power system.

It was with great pride, on the winter solstice in 2014, that I switched on the inverter. I could power all my lighting right away, but had to wait until spring to add my other electronics: computer, satellite modem, TV, satellite receiver, DVD player, and stereo. During the summer, the system also runs a fan. And during a power outage, I can light my home and stay connected with the world.

But the greatest sense of accomplishment came one day as I was standing on the back porch, admiring the modules and the work I had done. Behind them is a large stand of bamboo. It occurred to me that, no matter how efficient humans made PV modules, we would never achieve the productivity that plants do when they convert solar power, considering the green all around us.

Suddenly I had a strong feeling that the plants were thanking me, that somehow I had achieved a higher state of being by becoming more like them, becoming more sustainable in my use of natural resources. If we commit to living our lives without depleting nature, then nature will provide a paradise now and in the future. On many levels—practical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual—I had freed myself. Simple solar produced the simple delights of being in tune with nature, and knowing that I’m doing my part to make the world better for future generations. It will change your life, as surely as it has changed mine.

Dennis O’Brien • Ukiah, California

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