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Unexpectedly Off-Grid: Dispatches from a Louisiana Hurricane Survivor

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Charles and furry friend, Gator.

Hunkered down in a 131-year-old house in the historic French Quarter neighborhood, Charles P., a native of New Orleans, rode out Hurricane Ida with his dog, Gator. He had made a calculation to stay home rather than evacuate based on the storm’s forecasted track, but a fateful last-minute shift to the east brought stronger winds and darkness to the region.

Charles unexpectedly faced life off the grid for about 72 hours. Though he was somewhat prepared, he was caught off guard because the longest power outage anyone in his neighborhood could recall lasted only a few hours. In the French Quarter, home to myriad hotels and restaurants, utilities are buried underground and resume service faster when pitted against hurricane-force winds. But, an accident upriver affected his neighborhood for the worse.

Ironically, Hurricane Ida made landfall on August 29, exactly 16 years to the day that Hurricane Katrina had lashed the city and flooded nearly 80 percent of homes. What follows are excerpts from Charles’ journal, including one from 2005

Dispatches from the Storm

August 27, 2:10 pm. As of now, subject to change, I am planning to stay. The feds built a mega multi-billion-dollar levee ring around New Orleans. This will be its first serious test. My current neighborhood did not flood in Hurricane Katrina and, to the best of my knowledge, this old house built in 1890 has stood the test of time. Crossing fingers and toes. Stocked up on food and water.

Friend responds, “Well, okay, but we'll be worried the whole time. I'm hearing reports about how this is different than Katrina on a number of levels.” With the storm’s forward speed slowing down and the intensity increasing, Ida's surge may overtop some levees that protect parts of New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi River, said Heath Jones, emergency manager at the Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans District.

August 28, 6:26 pm. Been keeping an eye on the local updates all day. They differ from the national news and weather channels, which tend to paint with a broader brush. They are more specific in breaking down the threat to different parishes (counties). Orleans Parish has a levee-protection system that other parishes do not. The situation includes uncertainty, though they are forecasting the worst impacts west of the city.

August 29, 7:00 pm. Lost power about 30 minutes ago. Appreciate the calls & texts but now need to conserve battery. Have a back-up battery pack fully charged and candles. Flashlight and extra batteries. Plenty food and water. So far, so good. No water in the street. House is old construction (130 years). Not shaking or anything. Dog is glued to me. Fingers crossed. Set an intention that house, Gator, and I will come out of this okay. If I don’t respond, it’s for battery conservation.

August 29, 9:58 pm. Channel 8 News: “…says a transmission tower that provides power for New Orleans and the east bank of the parish has collapsed into the river near Bridge City. …cables strung across the Mississippi River are now in the water… All eight major transmission lines are down, according to Entergy.”

August 29, 11:30 pm. Gator and I are okay. The wind has died down. Have door open for air. Dog ran outside, a good sign. Power is out. See my last post: tower collapsed into river. Very bad news. Still raining. That will be a problem in low lying areas if the pumps can’t handle it. Made “Tacos del Hurricane Ida” by flashlight. For real! Dinner by candlelight. Not aware of any damage to the house (a good sign). Will take a look in daylight. Feeling fortunate and blessed. Thanks for caring.

On Monday, Charles awoke to no power, and no cell service. An AT&T tower was also knocked offline. A neighbor let him use her cell phone (Verizon) to call a friend who posted on social media that Charles, his dog, and home were safe. Later, on August 30, he was able to receive and send text messages. Internet service, at 3G speeds, not LTE/5G, was established in the early evening. Cell service for calls was restored the next day, Tuesday.

August 30, 6:58 pm. No power, no cell. Just starting to get texts and data. House, Gator and I are okay. Did not flood here, but power could be out for a long time. Car was locked in a communal garage down the street, but with help of neighbor “McGuyver,” got the gate off its electric hinges and removed the car. More options to stay or leave now. Large tree across the street fell down, plus one down the block. Fridge still cold. Lots of water. Hanging in there. Again, I need to conserve battery. May not reply.

August 30, 11:20 pm. Due to power, cell, and data outages, I haven’t seen much news. In fact, this morning, I had no information—which was quite unnerving. I finally got a connection. This article from the Wall Street Journal seems like a good summary.

High Heat Complicates Recovery

One of the most crippling aspects of the power outage was the heat and humidity in New Orleans in late August. The heat index was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for several days in a row.

Charles says he was aware of this danger, adding, “I basically stayed outdoors quite a bit after Hurricane Ida, sitting outside on the stoop in the shade for extended periods at all hours. There was often a gentle breeze coming off the Mississippi River. One night, I took a joy ride with my neighbor while she charged her phone with the car’s A/C on full blast. I kept hydrated and took a lot of showers to cool down too.” During this time, staying cool literally meant survival.

August 31, Tuesday 9 pm. Gator and I are doing fine. Might actually be sweating off a few pounds in the heat. The power situation in New Orleans remains an unknown. Estimates for repairs vary wildly. Power will be allocated to hospitals, nursing homes, police and fire stations first. Makes sense. I still have food and water, but that’s unsustainable if this lasts much longer. Maddeningly, cell and data drift in and out of service. Text messages fail.

Thanks to some gracious offers from the Houston area, my current plan is to head that way unless the power snaps back on. My thought is to move between hosts in two- to three-day increments so as not to wear out my welcome. A former Couchsurfer from San Antonio also contacted me. This plan is a work in progress. Message me if you have any ideas. My little rescue miniature poodle will be with me. Fully vaccinated and the dog is up to date on shots.

While preparing to evacuate, Charles knew better than to leave perishable food behind in the refrigerator, especially if the power was going to be off for weeks as initially forecast. In Hurricane Katrina, food left in freezers turned to toxic sludge. Appliances had to be scrapped because they were considered a bio-hazard. Alas, when he opened his freezer for the first time on day three, everything had already defrosted. The bottom of the freezer was a sickening soup. Everything had to be tossed except for fruits and vegetables.

Power Restores and Taking in a New Friend

September 1, 9:11pm. OMG! Let there be light. (Lower French Quarter; no info on other neighborhoods.

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Power is back! Photo by Charles

September 2nd Thursday 9 p.m. Power is on and stable (water in fridge stayed cold overnight). Air conditioning worked all day. Tap water never cut off; sewage working. Still have food and water (plenty dog food too!). I’m extremely humbled by the outpouring of offers for shelter and help. Considering that things in my specific location are calm, I’ve decided to stay (subject to change if things deteriorate). That said, I was really looking forward to seeing all my friends in Texas. Hugs all around.

To payback your generosity, I took in a senior dog temporarily. Sky is 16, deaf, partially blind, and has arthritis. Her human is a nurse at Ochsner Hospital who got called into work for several days (they will house her on campus while she works). Her place does not have power, thus she could not leave Sky alone inside in the heat.

Of course I said yes immediately. Gator seems to like his new friend. By helping each other out, we make this world a much better place. Thanks for being such wonderful people. I love you all.

Sunday, September 5th. Gator and I took a drive today. Lots of trees down (the roads have pretty much all been cleared near here). New Orleans is a ghost town. Grocery was reasonably well-stocked considering the situation. Currently at a bar visiting friends. To keep hydrated, only drinking water (I barely drink alcohol anyway).

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Gator & friend

Sunday September 5th 🐩 Gator 🐊 and I took a drive today. Lots of trees down (the roads have pretty much all been cleared near here). New Orleans is a ghost town. Grocery was reasonably well-stocked considering the situation. Currently at a bar visiting friends. To keep hydrated, only drinking water (I barely drink alcohol anyway).

Friday September 10th

A fleet of power trucks rolling through New Orleans. Quite a beautiful sight. I hope they’re headed to some of the harder hit  communities southwest of here now.

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Power company trucks

Charles was lucky to get back on the grid after only 72 hours. He says friends in New Orleans endured nine to 14 days without power. The heat killed nearly a dozen people as a result of heat exhaustion.

The Greatest Killer in New Orleans Wasn’t the Hurricane. It Was the Heat.

Lessons Learned from a Hurricane Survivor

Before Hurricane Ida hit, Charles charged up his power brick — normally used only to jump his hybrid car — as it had USB outputs from which he was able to charge his phone four times. He never thought of charging his phone in the car until a neighbor mentioned taking a cruise in air conditioning while charging her phone. He said that ride was a great relief from the heat! He also figured out that his car charger was outdated and has already ordered a more modern one.

Charles reports that he learned some lessons in Hurricane Ida, though he’s frustrated by current regulations in the city. Because he lives in a historic district, solar panels are forbidden. Staunch preservationists fear they would change the character of the 303-year-old neighborhood. He’s also wary of gas-powered generators, because of reports of carbon monoxide poisoning. They are supposed to be kept at least 20 feet from the house, but Charles says his back alley is only 8 feet wide at most.

Living in the French Quarter has its charms, but his location can be considered a liability in the modern world when forced off the grid with insufficient preparation and rules that prohibit residents from having backup solar power.

A past entry from 16 years ago, reflecting on 2005

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Snapshot taken after the water receded by officials with The Lake Vista Homeowners Association, months before he was allowed to return to the city and see his home firsthand.

Katrina: There was no turning back, no going home. Simply put, there was no home to go back to. It was a stark, sobering reality. By Tuesday, August 30, 2005, we had seen enough television footage and heard enough reports on WWL Radio to know that our fate was sealed. Now, we were facing uncharted waters. We chose Dallas because we had family there, and I figured the grandkids would be of comfort to Mom.

With all of this going on, I also had a commitment to Ragan Communications to deliver a Webinar on Wednesday (the show must go on!). It was time to leave Texarkana and trek to a big city where there would be better resources for evacuees, and better phone and Internet service so I could work (my New Orleans-based cell was all but dead save for text messages).

I'm very grateful to the many people and places who aided us in our time of need. Extended StayAmerica (Arlington, Texas), Jason's Deli, Ragan Communications, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Tom, Ayelet, Shel, Michele, Steve, Cindy, Michael, Jennifer W. and much of IABC/Canada, Russell G., BBC News, IABC Europe, Middle East, North Africa, and countless individuals. If I missed your name, please know that I love you and accept my apologies.

A little-known fact after the storm was the fact our bank cards failed. They were issued by a New Orleans bank which maintained a back-up in New Orleans. With the mandatory evacuation, our bank cards ceased to work when the emergency generators ran out of fuel. The bank managed to get a physical copy of the back-up and said they were taking it to Monroe, La., to bring the system back up. But that was about a 10-day ordeal and outage. Luckily, we had packed travelers checks in our emergency getaway box "just in case."

Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for over 35 years and he works as Chief Tech for AES Solar. He can be reached at tech@AESsolar.com . He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page, and read all of Aur's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

 

Adventures in the Early Days of Solar Power

 

Solar panels and battery array. Photo by Aur Beck

Growing up completely off-grid only using low-tech energy sources, including candles and kerosene for lighting with an occasional battery-operated device, such as our shortwave radio, made me desire to figure out how to avoid needing to constantly buy these items. When The Farm, an intentional community near us, had an alternative energy fair in 1990, I was extremely excited to learn about photovoltaic (PV) solar energy and right away started studying and learning about it.

I distinctly remember the magic of seeing a PV module directly powering a fan — and that I could control the speed of the fan by how much light I blocked by causing a shadow. The power of the sun was cooling me off! Note that I interchangeably use solar “module”, the proper tech term, and solar “panel”, a more common name that industry folks consider technically a device for heating hot water or hot air.

Life Powered by Batteries Before Solar

Before discovering this PV magic, I had been powering my shortwave radio using many D batteries and lights by setting up jumper cables to charge an older starter battery on the floor of the passenger side of my truck. When I was driving around, it would charge the battery, which I could then remove from the truck to power 12-volt halogen lights, my CB radio (my early days phone), my shortwave radio for news around the world, and a small, 6-inch, 12-volt fan.

I would have to recharge that battery every couple of days. I somehow was given a little PV panel (either Frank Micheals or Albert Bates made a trade for it); it provided under 5 watts of power. I needed to recharge via my truck less often after I hooked it up, but in retrospect, it probably was doing next to nothing.

Saving for My First PV Solar Panel

I worked all summer at low-paying, “menial” jobs (in what I have been told was the poorest county in Tennessee) to save up to buy my first solar module — with 45 watts of power! I’d use it to primarily power lights in my camper-house, using 12-volt halogen tail-light bulbs.

Do you know what “backer” is in these parts? That is tobacco. Do you know that suckering baccer is a hard, menial, manual hands-on job? Suckering baccer is going through the whole field and breaking off the little shoots (leaves) so that the big shoots can leaf out to big leaves of tobacco. I was 14 when I worked all summer saving up. I wasn’t told to wear gloves or I simply didn’t, and the gooey stickiness of the sap of the tobacco plant (nicotine) entered through my skin and made me the highest and the sickest I have ever been. I highly recommend this approach to ensuring someone doesn’t ever want to be exposed to tobacco ever again.

I picked rocks out of a field, I completed a variety of odd handyman jobs, and finally I picked pimento peppers being paid by the pound. I saved up over $400 for a 45-watt Kyocera solar module — consider this costing me at the time $10 per watt when these days, solar can be purchased a less than $1 per watt. Wow! — to hook up to an old starter battery I had.

Using Early-Generation Solar Power

After I bought the “large” (and would now be considered small) 45-watt PV module, I thought I could eliminate the hassle of toting that heavy battery around. I hooked up the PV module and promptly over-charged and killed the battery.

I had bought what was called a self-charging solar panel, which was 30 cells instead of the standard 36-cell module. The two most common solar panel options on the market today are 60-cell and 72-cell. By having fewer cells, I had a lower-voltage solar module, so the idea was it would be harder to over-charge the battery.

It was heavily advertised (as I see modules advertised still nowadays) as a self-charging solar panel, so I thought I didn’t need a charge control. Later, I learned that a solar module wired to a battery will charge the battery during the day (or under a light), but at night (or in the dark), the energy will flow in the other direction out of the battery and stream out of the solar module and, of course, discharge the battery. The simple solution is a diode, which is a one-way check valve.

For entertainment, every person in the family was allowed to choose one hour of TV a week, which we watched on a little 4-inch screen; a 12-volt DC television hooked up to our truck battery. In place of regular TV, we were all very much into listening to the radio, including BBC broadcasts from London, on our shortwave radio, which operated on D-cell batteries. (To this day, I rarely watch television.)

Moving Into a Solar-Powered Camper

When I was 14, I personally bought a truck-mounted camper to move into. It was a completely self-contained home wired for 12-volt DC, including a fan, a CB radio, lights, and a propane stove and heater. I did build a small room where the cab of the truck would have been and installed a small woodstove there in order to use less propane for heating.

To supply power for the 12-volt DC system, I charged an extra battery in our truck as we drove around. It was a hassle to constantly hook up the heavy battery in the truck, so at some point, I horse-traded for a 2-watt PV module and a copy of the last free issue of Home Power magazine.

I noticed that I had to charge the battery less often after I hooked up the little PV cell. I soon became obsessed with getting my hands on a larger PV module.

In the summer when I was 15, I hustled any paid work I could get — in the poorest county of Tennessee. I picked pimiento peppers (which paid by the pound) and suckered tobacco plants (while absorbing enough tar and nicotine to make me sick). I even got a job picking rocks out of a field, but I eventually saved up the $400 or so to buy a Kyocera 45-watt module. So, at 15 years old, I legitimately went off the grid, solar-powered.

I couldn’t afford a charge controller and figured I would use enough power to keep from overcharging the system, but I soon destroyed my old battery. It was an old car battery, but as I learned more, I bought a deep-cycle marine battery and a charge controller. (Later, I learned that wasn’t a true deep-cycle battery, but it did work for a couple of years before it failed prematurely.) So, finally, on my third try, I bought the proper batteries and they lasted for eight years. Those batteries were true deep-cycle, 6-volt DC batteries wired in series for 12-volt DC.

For four years, my whole system consisted of one 45-watt module, one charge controller, and two 6-volt DC batteries wired with fuses between each component. This was enough to power a DC fan, a CB radio, a shortwave radio, and lights, which were repurposed halogen taillights. Eventually, I wanted to watch movies, so I bought a DC to AC inverter to power a TV and VCR, but it drained my batteries too quickly. The 300-watt inverter was only 80-percent efficient, so I lost at least 20 percent of my power in the conversion process.

Off-Grid with Solar to This Day

At the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair in Wisconsin, I bought a new Photowatt 100- watt module, but ended up trading that for three used 50-watt ASE America modules. This meant I had to buy a bigger charge controller to handle my “new” modules, which I did. My system, slightly expanded, had operated as my primary power for a total of 18 years.

I have replaced the batteries twice, changed the charge controller when I added more modules, and had to replace the pocket inverter once.

Aur 'DaEnergyMon', is a NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer™ with AES Solar in Carterville Illinois and started educating himself about renewable energy as a teenager even before (at age 15) he moved into a camper in his parents driveway to live off grid solar and ended up living off grid for 18 years. Aur understands that living how he does makes it very easy to advocate for a life of simpler living, energy efficiency and renewable energy. His name Aur (pronounced "or") means light or to enlighten in Hebrew. Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for over 35 years and he works as Chief Tech for AES Solar. He can be reached at tech@AESsolar.com . He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page, and read all of Aur's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

New Generation of Microgrids Hampered by Outdated Utility Rules

Microgrid at Alabama Power’s Smart Neighborhood
Photo by Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Peter Asmus, Research Director at Guidehouse Insights, has been tracking the development of microgrids for over a dozen years. He’s written more than 100 articles on microgrids. In a recent episode of The NetPositve Podcast, he talks about the genesis of microgrids. For the most part, they originated out of necessity in the developing world. Many, if not most, microgrids in the world today are not connected to the grid.

But now, microgrids are coming of age in the “developed world” where there is a grid. They operate in parallel with the grid for resilience. Asmus noted that initially Europe scoffed at that concept because its grid was so reliable. But today, given extreme climate events throughout the world, including recent and devastating flooding in Europe, and thanks to dramatic drops in solar and storage prices, coupled with smart control technologies, microgrids make sense in many applications and locations. In some cases, they can pay for themselves through daily operations. They can be financed. Microgrids have come a long way.

What is Holding Microgrids Back in North America?

In the podcast, Asmus talks about barriers to the implementation of microgrids. He characterizes the state of microgrids as “inching along to full commercialization.” He notes that yes, there’s lots of activity. Lots of microgrid projects are providing values. But he explains that microgrids are held back in some ways.

Outdated utility rules. Deployment is still hampered to some extent by old-school, monopoly rules, like the “over the fence” rule. In most states, you cannot run a line over the fence and power your neighbor’s property. Not even during an outage. That will change in time.

Interconnection challenges. Another factor at play is a utility culture inherently rooted and opposed to distributed generation and storage and, by extension, microgrids. Differing rules and varying decisions on interconnection has challenged timely engineering and installation. The engineers that install and hook up microgrids say that we need to clarify and ease the interconnection process. Asmus notes that we are moving toward modular microgrid architecture, plug-and-play style, and all UL listed and approved, to make interconnection as smooth process.

Failure to account for full value. Regulatory proceedings are underway, but policies are not yet set on how to fully capture the value of microgrids to society as a whole. Asmus explains that it’s not just the value of a microgrid to the winery, or warehouse, or wealthy homeowner, it’s also about community resilience and grid support. To spread the costs of microgrids, the multiple values of microgrids to the specific site, utility, and community need to become embedded in policy and ultimately in tariffs.

Microgrids Advancing, but Slowly

As of April 2021, and according to Microgrid Knowledge, lawmakers in 20 U.S. states had introduced 69 microgrid-related bills in legislatures. This has been driven by the need for grid modernization, energy resilience, and by extreme weather events, fires, floods, heat waves, cold plunges.

Barriers aside, there is great proof that there’s lots going on in the microgrid space. Asmus points to incredible technological advances in the years that he has been tracking microgrids: Solar costs are way down, storage costs are following a similar trajectory. Controls have dramatically advanced. Asmus says that they’re the key technology to making microgrids work, orchestrating sophisticated energy-management protocols.

So, are we inching along, or are we charting a radically different power course? Perhaps some of each. To fully attain the value of microgrids, based on currently available technology, we need to move faster. No more mobile generators (Morbugs), mostly diesel, to respond to climate-induced harsh realities and PSPS events.

We need clean energy resilience. We need modular and carbon-free solutions. Easy to permit and to interconnect. We need to be able to finance these systems and their values for “energy as a service” and “resilience as a service."

Editor’s note: For an example of a utility-supported microgrid that is fully functional, take a look at Reynolds Landing — Alabama’s “Smart Neighborhood” — as a community microgrid initiative that has the potential to power our future.

Ted Flanigan runs EcoMotion, a California-based company with the mission of the cost-effective greening of cities, corporations, and campuses. He has dedicated his career to finding win-win solutions that create financial and environmental benefits while fostering a sustainable society. Connect with Ted on Facebook and Twitterlisten to The NetPositive Podcastand read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Renewables Pioneer Builds an Off-Grid Hot Tub

 

Renewable Energy Pioneer John Root, photo by John Root

Note from Mother Earth News blogger, Aur Beck: John Root is a longtime solar pioneer and mentor to me. I love to see the fun things he comes up with including his solar electric tricycle and riding mower. This guest post was written by John.

This is my journey to powering my off-grid hot tub at 6,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

A Sustainable Life Leads to an Off-Grid Campground

I've been living on- and off-grid for 40 years. I started out building hot-air solar collectors and designing root cellars with sunspaces on top. For those designs, I fed air to the root cellar via a 50-foot ground tube. I then vented the root cellar into the sunspace or greenhouse. It worked great, preserving food for winter, helping heating the house, and cooling the sunspace in the summer. I was hooked.

Next came a Jacob's 10-kilowatt wind turbine. You have got to love 40-percent tax credits, which allowed for my business, The Rootcellar, to be born. For the next 40 years, I dedicated my efforts to promoting renewable energy and sustainable living. However, years of climbing towers, installing solar, and general hard work left me with one knee replacement with the other due to be replaced in the fall, and my hands full of arthritis. I'm not complaining here, just stating the facts. I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. I've been fortunate to live in a wonderful time and am watching my vision turn into reality.

Today, I am a campground host living in my solar-powered travel trailer and residing in off-grid campgrounds. I love this life and the people I meet!

Camper Parked In Arid Desert. Photo by John Root

Finding an Off-Grid Hot Tub Solution

In order to continue this lifestyle, I needed to find a way to relieve my arthritic pain pills that made me sick. Supplements help but soaking in a 104-degree Fahrenheit hot tub really did the trick.

But how to run a hot tub in an off-grid campground with a 7-year-old, 150-amp-hour battery bank? Installing a 1,200-watt solar array was the trick. Also, it gets down to the 40 degrees at night in the mountains, so we are seeing a 20-degree temperature drop at night. This was really going to be quite a challenge.

 I started out testing an Intex inflatable hot tub and found out it draws around 1,200 watts when the pump and heater are running. That's a 27-amp draw on my 48-volt battery bank, which is producing 24 amps peak power.  Clearly, I needed more PV and battery power.

Upon retiring, I outfitted my work truck with a 1,200-watt solar array and a 200-amp-hour, 8-year-old battery bank. I then wired the RV battery bank in parallel with the truck battery bank. That solved my daytime capacity issue, but the old batteries were not up to running the hot tub after 5pm. Also, the hot tub heater wasn't suitable for raising the hot tub temperature up to 104 degrees, which is the temp that makes the pain go away.

Intex Hot Tub. Photo by John Root

Finding a Renewable Solution

I knew from my early days in wind that it was possible to heat water with a direct-current (DC) element. We would use water heating as a diversion load for excess wind power. However, I hadn't heard it done with solar. I thought, what the heck, I'll give it a try.

So, I went to my good friend Rob Hach at Trusted Energy in Alta, Iowa, and he helped me out fit my 12-foot cargo trailer with three 385 Sunpower 67-volt modules.

Next, I contacted my friends on the solar pioneer website asking if anyone knew how a water heater element would work best with a PV array with an open-circuit voltage of 180 volts and an amp rating of 6 amps. After some discussion, the answer came back to try a 240-volt, 3,500-watt element. I had a place to start, so to Amazon I did go. I found the element for $8 and when it arrived, I installed it in my floating DIY element holder. I was ready to test.

To my surprise, both the voltage and amperage varied dramatically. I achieved a maximum voltage of 107 volts and a maximum amperage of 6.2 amps — which is about 700 watts from a 1,100-watt array mounted flat. I'm sure as the summer progresses, those numbers will improve.

The beauty of this system is that it turns itself on and off, and eliminates the need for a charge controller, battery bank and inverter. I'm sure that if I added more modules, the wattage could be increased.

A final note: Amazon carries 48-volt, 10,000-watt elements. However, I think it would be less expensive to add modules than to purchase a charge controller and batteries.

Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for more than 35 years and he works as Chief Tech for AES Solar. He can be reached at tech@AESsolar.com . He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Projecta fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FMFind him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page, and read all of Aur's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Solar Power Pioneer Rebekah Carpenter's Circuitous Path to Success

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Rebekah Carpenter puts her long-time industry expertise to work in New York at her company, Fingerlakes Renewables Solar Energy.
Photo by Aur Bec
k

The opportunity to install solar-electric systems showed up for off-grid energy pioneer Rebekah Carpenter in the form of an offer to travel to Mali in western Africa. She would be tasked with installing an off-grid system — if she first could learn the trade. Twenty years later, solar power has become a part of who she is, which is founder of Fingerlakes Renewables in Ithaca, N.Y., where she has built longevity in a once-volatile industry, riding through inflation, subsidy onset and removal, technology wins and losses, and utility price increases. MOTHER EARTH NEWS blogger, Aur Beck, spent some time talking with Rebekah recently. The interview is edited for clarity.

What does off-grid living mean for you?

Living off the grid, none of my daily needs require the infrastructures of electric, gas, or oil to maintain function. For me, off-grid living is not a heroic statement on self-sufficiency — all that I've built has been on the shoulders of giants before me — but is a matter of function: Were a catastrophe to occur, I could continue my lifestyle fairly smoothly with little upheaval or change.

This is my return to a more intentional relationship with daily function. The investment of time and money into an infrastructure that doesn't require the continued work of anyone else to maintain creates an island of sorts; the number of people and households involved in off-grid lifestyles may vary, but there is a greater aspect of interior communication rather than exterior involvement in that circle.

This intentionality means living within a budget that is based on intangible resources — like total hours of sun per day — rather than representative resources, like cash money sent to the utility. In a grid setting, there is an illusion, if not a reality, of infinite availability throughout every day. The reckoning of cost comes after consumption. In off-grid, there is a limited resource that can be expanded if the reckoning of cost comes prior to consumption and is, therefore, more an investment than a payment.

Was this kind of intentional, off-grid lifestyle part of your upbringing? Tell us a bit about how this journey started.

I grew up in Texas. My family moved to Ithaca when I was 14, and I left to go back to Dallas a couple months later. I have brothers: three older and one 20 years younger than me. I gather animals. I genuinely love working. My 8th Grade aptitude test said I could do anything I wanted and shouldn't be a tradesperson, because my life would be wasted. Well... [laughs]

I went to school for a bit in western Washington, then in northern Idaho, then moved rather aimlessly back to Ithaca at 23. I dropped out of two colleges trying to study wildlife resources and game management. I wasn't stoked about more college, wasn't happy about the cold, and was pretty lost in general.

When my family had moved to Ithaca when I was 14, I lived in the house we were building long enough to be responsible for doing the wiring before I left, so when I was offered the opportunity to start learning some about solar, sit at home fairs and workshops, and do a little wiring, I didn't exactly jump but I meandered that direction.

Then suddenly, I fell into the opportunity to get a free trip to Bamako, Mali, if I learned the trade enough to install an off-grid system there.

During the two years it took to get to Bamako — costs, education, shipping delays, 9/11 delays — I had started working at a local intentional community that my dad was managing as the solar specialist. I'm a carpenter by birth, but an electrician by trade, I like to say! (I also like to say I'm a Rebekah Carpenter, not a finish carpenter, so don't expect every corner to be square). All of this was on-grid, mostly using 48-volt nominal DC systems tied to spinning meters that were just being allowed to net. And wiring into J-boxes on 110-watt mods, because there were no quick connects, and drill pressing aluminum, because extruded racking wasn't standard yet.

I was starting to do some site visits elsewhere, showing up for small, off-grid systems hoping I didn't make any big mistakes.

I hope you eventually did make it to Mali.

Yes! After this circuitous path, then to Mali!

I spent 13 days installing on the far outskirts of the capital — at that point, I was pretty well hooked. When I got back to New York, NYSERDA [New York State Energy Research and Development Authority] was taking over the previous subsidy plan and started to train us as installers at their Malta facility. That was around 2002. In the years since, I've tried from time to time to escape but...

What are the main barriers for people going solar in the U.S. today?

Most often, the reason people don't choose solar is cost. A lot of people only want solar if they can secure their power supply with a battery [for complete self-reliance], and that is still an unreachable goal for many.

Lack of siting is also a big factor for folks — although many of them now can choose solar farms, community solar, or purchasing power from wind farms. When I started working in this field, the subsidies were much higher, but the cost of materials was much higher. The transfer of funding from subsidy to tax credit has helped tremendously for those with income, but has largely wiped out a sector of consumers who would very much like to invest in renewable energy but aren't in a bracket where they can benefit from the tax credits.

While availability is increasing and costs are decreasing, it's still a cash-positive investment that a lot of people can't afford. And in pricing systems, the economy of scale certainly doesn't support the start-small approach.

Another factor that prevents people from going solar is educational or political misinformation.

Tell me about your worst jobs.

In the off-grid world, people can have needs and wants that are unrealistic, and they blame me for it. Being told to design a small system or modest usage does not always sit well with roughing-it kind of people! I’ll find out that they installed a 40-gallon, dual-element water heater between design signatures and installation time — I make sure to ask more questions now!

The worst on-grid job involved a homeowner who hadn't finished installing the roof, had multiple clean-up tickets from the village, was much-scorned by the code officer, and code enforcement — and we didn't get along. I had to pull the plug on that system when the homeowner wouldn't show up to court to deal with fines, code enforcement held a grudge, and I opted for losing some money and gaining some sleep.

I'd say the worst situations came from poor communication between the homeowners and me. One of the downsides of being on my own as a business owner is that I have no one to send in to fix sore egos!

It sounds like the human factor, rather than technical factors, are the biggest source of issues.

Well, for one house, the inverters kept kicking out. This was using a certain GT model that had awful issues. We switched out three inverters, twice. That homeowner was as patient as could be, though it was frustrating for both of us.

How about your best jobs?

Best jobs, man that's tough. The first commercial site I installed was a winery, so the view was overlooking the lake, the vineyards, and the rolling hills. Hard to beat that. And I built a little overhang for the four SMA [brand] inverters (back in the transformer days). However., I'm 5 feet 3 inches tall, and the average height of the employees at the vineyard was about 6 feet. Two men were 6-foot-4-inches or so. I built a nice little roof, easily accessible for me to walk right under. Lovely people!

I've had conversations with customers about life and loss, chatted about abusive relationships, difficulty of being a woman or a minority in the trades (or anywhere). One fella was going through a third round of cancer and we talked about plants for a couple hours.

I've been hired back more often than I expected to add more production. Another fella said he was out of buildings or he'd have me put in more! I've rewired systems from 20 years ago with new inverters and they are working wonderfully. I get to design small, inexpensive systems for older folks who have lived with little or nothing, but now want a little more.

That's the joy of self-employment; I don't always have to earn money for a job to be worth it! I've gotten to teach electrical basics to immigrants, women, trades-based high school and junior high classes. I've done relief work in Puerto Rico, and had the amazing opportunity to assist with life-changing work in Haiti. I guess I still really love my work.

Get in touch with Rebekah Carpenter via her company, Fingerlakes Renewables is in Ithaca N.Y.


Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for over 35 years. He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page, and read all of Aur's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

How the First Earth Day Made Way for the Renewable Energy Revolution

Volunteers partnered with the City and County of Honolulu and other concerned citizens to participate in Honolulu’s Earth Day 2012's Mauka to Makai Clean Water Expo

Photo by Flickr/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Fifty-one years is a long time—a good run. Certainly not a momentous year, or milestone. That was last year. But this year I launched The NetPositive Podcast and for our podcast’s first Earth Day, we feature an interview with Denis Hayes. He was the national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970, and founder of the Earth Day Network. He is credited with creating the largest secular movement in the world.

By 1990, Earth Day was “mobilizing” 200 million people in 190 countries. By now, and in collaboration with 75,000 partner organizations, Earth Day has mobilized a billion people worldwide.

The Early Days of Earth Day

Denis is warm and thoughtful, well past his activist days but with convictions that haven’t changed a bit. He puts fledgling Earth Day in perspective, juxtaposing environmentalism with the Nixon administration, the Vietnam War, Cambodia, and Kent State. There was decency in Congress then. Members could and did come together to address air pollution — smog — and water pollution, the worst of which made so stark by the Santa Barbara oil spill.

I remember Earth Day in 1970, the roadside clean-up organized by East Woods School. This was the first Earth Day, announced in a full-page New York Times advertisement. Our gang pulled a ridiculous amount of trash out of the bushes along Yellowcote Road. People had thrown their bottles roadside for years. Some disposal system. Earth Day was about changing behavior, for me recycling. It was about demanding an end to rampant air pollution. It was about cleaning the water. Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring had shocked us all. Imagine a spring with no birds chirping gaily... long gone due to chemicals and toxins spewed into the environment by industry. This was the time of Love Canal, a tearful native American in a canoe... an awakening of American eco-consciousness.

President Nixon saw Mayor John Lindsay in New York attracting huge crowds on Earth Day and was simply jealous. He soon thereafter formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to shine the light in his direction. Shortly thereafter, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act were signed into law. Many of us see the role that Earth Day played in forging a broad environmental coalition.

The Earth Day Network went after “the dirty dozen,” 12 members of Congress with particularly bad environmental voting records who were up for reelection. Because of the spotlight shined on their environmental records, seven of the 12 were defeated, and the political power of the environmental movement was proven.

Backing up a bit, it was Senator Gaylord Nelson, a junior senator from Wisconsin, who first envisioned “Environmental Teach-Ins” at universities across the country. Nelson recruited Denis — took him away from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard — and made him the national coordinator. The idea of “Environmental Teach-Ins” morphed into “Environmental Rights Day,” and ultimately “Earth Day.” Some five months later, 20 million people took to the streets.

According to Denis, there was a rare political alignment, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor, could agree that we only have one planet and that we’d better take care of it. The Earth Day movement was about taking all these threads, weaving them together, and forming a nationwide rally. Walter Cronkite called it a “nationwide outpouring of mankind.” We were saving life from fouled skies and waters.

Earth Day held major events in 1970, 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2020. As the Energy Program Director at Rocky Mountain Institute, I spoke at Earth Day 1990 in Lincoln Park, Chicago. There were 100,000 people in the park, 20,000 in the stage area. I took the stage after Mayor Daily and Senator Paul Simon. “No, Chicago does not need nuclear […] that’s dangerous and costly. Instead, Chicago needs energy efficiency, it’s safe and inexpensive […]” I said with a compact fluorescent lightbulb held high to a thunderous applause. Those were the days.

Leading the Renewable Energy Movement

The podcast features Denis’s story at the head of the Solar Energy Research Institute, later renamed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. Denis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter with a mission to chart a pathway to get 20% of all energy use in America from renewables by the year 2000.

Denis brought the best minds in from around the country to develop a renewable energy roadmap. But when Reagan took the presidency, in came the “dull grey men, in dull grey suits, walking dull grey hallways, thinking dull grey thoughts.” Quickly, Hayes finalized the research and shared it widely. U.S. Representative Richard Ottinger read the report into the public record. There was a new vision and roadmap, substantiating the claims and visions made by Amory Lovins and others. Later Brickhouse Publishing released the report as The New Prosperity. I have a copy in my library.

Bullitt Foundation Continues its Mission

Denis is a class act and a friend that I have known since 1986. After a distinguished career in both academics and activism, he’s been at the helm of the Bullitt Foundation, a foundation that has had the mission of making the Northwest region exemplary in terms of sustainability. Today, Bullitt is even more laser-focused geographically, specifically supporting sustainability in a region west of the Cascades, from Portland to Vancouver, the so-called “Emerald Corridor.”

Bullitt’s headquarters in Seattle features a solar mortar-board solar array of note, and rainwater collection. It uses one-seventh the lighting energy stipulated in the building code. It makes a striking statement.

Denis has made a lifetime of striking statements. Check him out on The NetPositive Podcast on Spotify, Apple, and Google.

Ted Flanigan runs EcoMotion, a California-based company with the mission of the cost-effective greening of cities, corporations, and campuses. He has dedicated his career to finding win-win solutions that create financial and environmental benefits while fostering a sustainable society. Connect with Ted on Facebook and Twitter, listen to The NetPositive Podcast, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Just Transition: Renewable Energy Can Drive Equitable Job Creation

Photo by Justin Lim on Unsplash

The role of community choice aggregation for solar — programs that allow local governments to procure power on behalf of their residents — has quickly expanded from a green commodity program to one where social benefit is at the core, providing energy resiliency and equitable jobs in the communities they serve.

Perspectives provided by a Rocky Mountain Institute webinar, moderated by James Newcombe, Aligning Toward a Renewable Economy for a Swift and Fair Energy Transition, put the plight of equitable jobs and opportunities in the clean energy transition in the fore.

Renewable Energy Driving Economic Growth

Newcombe welcomes all and lays it on the line: There has been and continues to be a lingering perception that a clean-energy economy will burden global economies. But no. He cites data that shows far more jobs in clean energy. They are growing fast and creating sustained jobs in our society.

The World Energy Outlook of the International Energy Agency (IEA) presents a sustainable development scenario — “nearly Paris-compliant” — that projects that there could be 27 million clean-energy jobs in the next three years, while preventing 12 million deaths related to asthma and other respiratory diseases exacerbated by fossil-fuel emissions.

Another study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects that 2 to 7 million jobs will be lost in the fossil fuel industries by 2030, and 38 to 60 million new jobs in clean energy. There are already three times as many clean energy jobs in the United States as there are fossil fuel jobs. Panelist and RMI Principal Jacob Corvidae posited a discussion with his son: “So, do you want a job in the fading fossil fuel industry, or the booming solar industry?” The choice is pretty obvious.

The pandemic has hit the fossil fuel industry really hard, so hard that it may never recover. A Deloitte study notes that of the 107,000 oil and gas jobs lost in the pandemic, as many as 70% may be permanently lost. Newcombe noted that the year 2019 may be oil and gas industry’s peak year. Meanwhile, the clean energy industry will rebound quickly. The challenge and opportunity is for the public and private sectors to come together to strategically chart a sound clean energy course. A big part of this involves jobs and equity.

Clean Energy Industry Driving Equitable Job Creation

Corvidae discussed jobs in inner cities and creating a just transition to a clean energy economy. How can small, disadvantaged businesses participate?

Corvidae said that it will take policies to make it happen. In Boston, RMI is working in collaboration with the Emerald Cities Collective to promote means for minority-owned contractors to access the pipeline of public-sector work, providing normally underrepresented companies with good paying jobs. This is “doing development differently.” He talked about Detroit and its Community Benefit Agreements, creating opportunities and addressing the structural injustices. New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act requires that 35% of its funds are targeted into disadvantaged communities.

Panelist Sharon Burrow Leslie began by making it clear that the post-pandemic recovery will need to be in both social and environmental balance. Due to the pandemic, a half billion jobs have been lost around the world. There is both a climate and health emergency at hand. Furthermore, Leslie noted that there has been an erosion of trust in democracy.

Fixing the Crisis of Democracy

A recent study shows that less than 45% of young people trust democracy. Given social unrest, Leslie said that we need to rebuild the public’s trust through transparency and accountability. There needs to be a just transition to our clean energy future. The European Union has plans for recovery that have a social pillar based on a green new deal and cutting supply-chain exploitation.

Martin Luther King was quoted, that we need leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice. If the recovery is just about money, we fail the planet, we can’t have justice. Yet there has been an explosion of global monopoly power and profits during the pandemic. Just as there have been huge corporate gains, and unconditional public subsidies of corporations, there has been marked social unrest and Leslie predicts that there will be more unless justice is served.

The times are indeed unprecedented, but they are predictable. The pandemic was predictable; so are the effects of climate change. So is the civil unrest. Now we need policies to support a just clean energy future: Yes, we need zero-net energy. We also need zero-net job loss. We cannot rebuild the global economy if people don’t have jobs and income. Every job lost must be replaced with new jobs.

How Can There be a Just Transition to a Clean Energy Economy?

Capitalism does have the brilliant merit of self-organizing. But it has inherent flaws. There needs to be means to address justice and equity within a capitalist society and in the transition to a sustainable future. Externalities can be no longer. We have the challenge and opportunity to meet both our social and climate objectives together. Jobs are a fundamental aspect of the recovery we all crave. We redefine the rules; we cannot prescribe the status quo.

Ted Flanigan runs EcoMotion, a California-based company with the mission of the cost-effective greening of cities, corporations, and campuses. He has dedicated his career to finding win-win solutions that create financial and environmental benefits while fostering a sustainable society. Connect with Ted on Facebook and Twitter, read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.







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