Types of Alternative Energy for the Home

Make a home alternative energy friendly by installing a wind turbine, solar panels, and backup generator.


| June/July 1998



Solar Panel

Terry and Taffy generate power with this 600W solar panel and a 300W wind turbine.


PHOTO: TOM LIDEN

I met Terry Montgomery for the first time one mid-summer afternoon in 1993. Terry and his wife Taffy were looking into purchasing remote land in Mendocino County and had an idea that they might want an alternative approach to their energy needs. I am always interested in the way a person's interest in types of alternative energy evolves. An event sometimes provides a new perspective on the way things are done. Terry put it this way: "I once served as the chief of staff for the governor of Minnesota. During that time a tremendous groundswell of resentment rose up from the normally soft-spoken inhabitants of rural Minnesota when the utility began to run a 400kW powerline across the land. The National Guard had to be called out. This made me ponder the choices between energy consumption and the environment."

"I was raised on a cattle ranch in a remote part of South Dakota where we had no electrical power. In my adult life, I took electrical power as a given, but my upbringing allowed me to face the prospect of a more austere lifestyle without a lot of trepidation."

Transitioning to Off-the-Grid Living

The first requirement of being a homepower troubleshooter is flexibility. There are as many individual permutations of renewable energy systems as there are people who need them. I did my best that afternoon to provide Terry with valuable information for his situation without losing him in a miasma of technobabble. In a soft-spoken conversational manner, he would first ask an intelligent question, then play out a fair amount of rope. I could then try and tie a pretty knot with it, or hang myself. This went on for about two hours. At the end of our conversation, we went our separate ways on amicable terms, with me wondering if I had left Terry a baffled and unlikely client, a more informed but still unlikely client, a very informed but still unlikely client, or a very informed and very likely client. Either way, I felt brain-picked. Over the next few months, Terry called or stopped by for more information, which ultimately resulted in a rough quotation for an energy system large enough to handle the rigors of a full working ranch.

Taffy had run a successful equestrian business when she and Terry lived in Minnesota, and her love of horses meant they would need some real open space for their animals. As they toured Mendocino County in search of the right place, Taffy and Terry told me they were able to use the information I had provided to evaluate some of the installations they ran across.

Mendocino County certainly deserves recognition as one of the independent energy hubs of the world. This means that the evolution of renewable power systems has stumbled through the sometimes haphazard installation techniques of people with limited funds, ability, or understanding of what they were trying to accomplish. The early "Mendo" systems are sometimes remarkably ugly electrical systems which somehow seem to work in spite of poor installation and years of neglect. Local solar-powered homes which had a more conventional appearance and energy use patterns (rather than the more rustic, low-tech homes with kerosene lamps and cigarette-lighter outlets) gave Terry and Taffy inspiration. Terry didn't want to have a Rube Goldberg energy system, but one that would offer safety and quality in appearance and function. Armed with the conviction that a renewable energy system could satisfy his needs, he purchased Thunderhawk Ranch: 185 acres of off-the-grid heaven.

The rolling grasslands at the top end of this three-thousand-foot mountain offer tremendous vistas of Redwood Valley, Ukiah, and the surrounding mountains, as well as excellent forage for the critters. The local utility company, however, showed little interest in Thunderhawk Ranch. With no more than a few homes to service and miles of power poles to install, the cost would be prohibitive to the end user and gain little for the utility.





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