Solar Power Pioneer Rebekah Carpenter’s Circuitous Path to Success

Reader Contribution by Aur Beck and Advanced Energy Solutions Group
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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

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 Renewablesis in Ithaca N.Y.

Aur Beckhas 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 atThe 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 theLiving Off Grid, Really!?!?Facebook page, and read all of Aur’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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