Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar

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The authors made their homestead as energy-efficient as possible before switching to power generated by a wind turbine and solar panels.
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By cantilevering solar panels off a shed wall, the authors saved money on mounting racks and trenching.
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A group tour learns about the solar and wind systems at Inn Serendipity, the authors' bed-and-breakfast.
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Since their homestead was already connected to the grid when they moved in, the authors decided it made sense to choose grid-tied renewable energy systems.
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These preserves have been grown and canned at the authors' renewable-energy-powered business.
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The authors grow and preserve produce from the garden at their business, Inn Serendipity.
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Generating their own renewable energy on-site has been pivotal to the authors' self-reliance.

Since moving to our 5-acre homestead in southwestern Wisconsin more than 20 years ago, our goals have been to maximize self-sufficiency, minimize energy use, and untether ourselves from fossil fuels and the emissions associated with burning them. We quickly realized that getting a house in order first, rather than immediately installing renewable energy systems such as a wind turbine or photovoltaics, would be far more cost-effective with respect to energy use and consumption. 

To this end, we switched to energy-efficient lightbulbs and sealed up our old 1,900-square-foot farmhouse as best we could with new windows, caulk, and insulation. Within a few years of buying the homestead, we began using a solar thermal system to meet our domestic hot water needs. We fired up a Lopi Endeavor woodstove for our primary heat source. We also adjusted our behavior, including line-drying our laundry and cooling the house with fans instead of air conditioning. We learned to grow our own food, prepare it in our kitchen, and preserve our garden harvest by canning and freezing. For us, our approach to renewable energy systems matched our approach to food systems, area ecological systems, and, in terms of our livelihood, financial systems: Everything relates to everything else.

After about five years of whittling down our electricity use — from 12,000 kilowatt-hours per year to 9,000 kWh per year — we found that our usage was more manageable for a renewable energy system, and we began exploring options for generating electricity on our homestead.

We have an all-electric property, where we both work as writers, authors, and owners/operators of Inn Serendipity bed-and-breakfast — and John is a photographer. Since our homestead was already connected to the grid when we moved in, simply using the grid for surplus electricity storage made the best economic sense and sidestepped the maintenance and battery disposal aspect of an off-grid backup system. Renewable energy systems didn’t affect how our appliances operated or what appliances we could use; everything electric in our house is an Energy Star certified appliance.

Pivotal to our ability to generate our own affordable energy were the educational resources available from the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) and the pages of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Equally important, however, were the financial incentives — both federal and state — available at the time for the installation of new renewable energy systems.

Home Solar Power

In 2002, we added grid-tied home solar power in the form of a 480-watt photovoltaic (PV) system consisting of four Kyocera KC-120 panels and an Advanced Electronics GC-1000 inverter. It was designed to meet about 2 percent of our electricity needs during summer, the busiest time of year for our farm and B&B. We estimated the system would generate roughly 500 kWh per year. The total cost of the project came to $5,527, with the setup covered as part of an MREA Installation Workshop. Subtract a state grant totaling $3,536, and our net investment cost came to just $1,991.

We decided to have our business, JDI Enterprises Inc., purchase the equipment, not us personally. As we write in our book ECOpreneuring, this allowed us to use pretax revenue from the business instead of post-tax personal income. Also, the business could deduct the net equipment cost as a depreciation expense, and claim the federal Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit.

We cantilevered this PV home solar power system off the south-facing wall of an existing equipment shed on our property, saving us more than $1,000 in additional mounting racks and trenching work we’d have needed if we’d chosen to situate it in a field instead. We easily and inexpensively connected the inverter to our existing farm service, avoiding the cost and maintenance that would’ve been associated with an off-grid battery system.

Home Wind Power System

Less than a year after our home solar power system was installed, we experienced a fortunate convergence of circumstances that made the installation of a 10-kW turbine wind power system from Bergey Windpower a reality. Not only were we able to secure a Focus on Energy state incentive grant, but small-wind expert and former MREA board president Mick Sagrillo saved us thousands in labor costs by agreeing to do an installation workshop. Additionally, the folks at renewable energy company Lake Michigan Wind & Sun got their hands on a used 120-foot-high, guyed-lattice tower and a used Bergey Excel S, which they rebuilt for us — again, saving us thousands of dollars. Rebuilding the generator involved replacing all the key parts of the turbine with new parts. We then paired the turbine with Bergey’s GridTek 10 Power Processor inverter so we could connect to the grid. A battery bank that could’ve handled the electricity generated by this system would’ve cost an additional $10,000 or more — money we simply didn’t have.

Like the PV system, the wind power system was purchased through our family business. We sited the tower and turbine in a field about 300 feet from the farmhouse. Because it generates three-phase alternating current, there’s relatively little line loss, unlike PV systems, which generate direct current. We placed the inverter as close to our solar panels as possible — in our case, on the other side of the equipment shed wall.

The total cost in 2003 for the Bergey wind power system was $31,075, minus the $15,595 state incentive grant and $8,390 of in-kind support. Within the first full year, we generated 7,033 kWhs of electricity. However, we didn’t start generating surplus electricity until we replaced the blades with newer ones two years later. At the time of this writing, our wind turbine has generated more than 127,425 kWhs of renewable energy.

Our net-metering contract with the local utility stipulates that we be paid for the surplus we generate, at the same rate we pay them when our systems don’t produce enough to meet our needs. That’s the magic of grid-tied systems: You never have to worry about battery maintenance or replacement, nor do you go without electricity if your system doesn’t produce enough power for your usage. We use the grid as our reliable battery bank, and our utility cuts us a check whenever we accrue more than $100 in credit on our bill. We’ve taken what’s normally an expense for our business and made it a revenue item in much the same way we’ve whittled away our food costs by growing our own.

The only downside to our grid-tied system is that if the grid goes down, so do our renewable energy systems (no matter how windy or sunny), because the inverters only operate when electricity is also flowing from the grid.

Choosing a Hybrid Renewable Energy System

It’s not always windy when it’s sunny, nor are wind patterns or solar gain the same every season. Our site is perfect for both wind power and solar power electric installations because we have an open view to the south and few trees, and are located on a ridge at a relatively high elevation. We also garnered input from owners of other wind turbines in the area to make sure our wind speed was high and regular enough to warrant the investment. We had just enough property to ensure that the “fall line” of the turbine’s tower was on our premises (on the rare chance it would be toppled by a storm) and not on a road or a neighbor’s land; this enabled us to avoid any hassles with securing easements or variances.

We opted for a hybrid wind and solar electric system so we could potentially generate at least some electricity on-site every day of the year. This hybrid system plays a key role in our ability to live carbon-negative. As one would expect, summertime is peak for solar electric generation. Winds are strongest and most regular from September to May, in our case averaging from 9 to 12 mph. After more than 16 years of electricity production, data which we display on Inn Serendipity’s website, we’ve found that the PV generates about 800 kWhs per year, and the wind turbine about 10,000 kWhs per year, making us net producers of renewable energy by about 2,000 to 3,000 kWhs per year. That translates to about $300 annually in credit checks from our utility company.

When we installed our wind turbine system, the cost for a comparable PV system was exorbitantly high. A wind turbine was the only way to go in 2003, given our limited funds. Since then, prices of PV modules have plummeted.

Weathering Change

Adapting to increasingly severe weather conditions and coping with equipment failure and the vagaries of politics as they relate to renewable energy have become essential over the 16 years we’ve produced our own energy. We regularly monitor our systems, especially after storms. We use a camera system to monitor the wind turbine inverter 24/7 when we’re off the homestead.

On the downside, our initial PV system was rendered useless after the Advanced Electronics GC-1000 inverter failed after just five years (unsurprisingly, the company went bankrupt as well). The PV system was replaced by Habi-Tek and Engineering Services with a new 680-watt PV system, this time consisting of four 170-watt Suntech modules and a more reliable Sunny Boy 700U inverter. The $5,600 price tag of the system was reduced by a $1,315 state financial incentive grant. We sold off the old PV modules after using them briefly as an off-grid, stand-alone system for recharging electric lawn mowers and battery-powered tools — even then, we found the backup storage (lead-acid car batteries) to be a hassle and unreliable.

The forces of nature can be harsh, especially on equipment sited in the middle of a field. Our wind turbine faced several small mechanical issues, including the need for fuse replacement, a new inverter cooling fan, and repair of leading-edge blade tape. Each major turbine-related repair cost us $800 because the nearest professional service provider, Kettle View Renewable Energy, had to travel hundreds of miles to our homestead. Tinkerers we are not, nor have we ever climbed the turbine’s tower.

We also experienced catastrophic blade failure after a severe storm cracked all three blades. Bergey stood behind its blades, covering replacement costs. The insurance we had taken out on the turbine helped cover some of the repair costs, but we were still out a $500 deductible on each occasion.

Future Renewable Energy Plans

Turbines have a definite life span, and ours is near the end. As with any piece of equipment, different components will eventually wear down or stop operating efficiently. Our Bergey wind turbine and GridTech inverter are no exceptions. That said, someone with the skill to rebuild generators can lower a wind turbine and rebuild it, replacing all those elements that wear out with normal use. We invite proposals from readers who are tinkerers and might want to take our wind turbine, tower, and inverter off our hands free of charge. Of course, you’d still have to pay for the crane and service person to safely take down the turbine and tower, and a licensed electrician to properly and legally disconnect the inverter from the grid.

We recently purchased a Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid and are now planning to add a new 10- to 12-kW PV system to become an official Tesla-charging destination for guests. The new system would replace the power we currently get from the wind turbine. With the steep drop in PV module prices, putting in a new PV system makes more economic sense for us than installing a new wind turbine. Plus, the PV system will qualify under the current federal tax credit for renewable energy systems (soon to be phased out); no incentives or tax credits exist for upgrading or replacing different components of an existing renewable energy system. The entire cost of all of our renewable energy systems has already been recovered by electricity energy savings, equipment depreciation, and the federal Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit, so our decision to adopt these systems was wise from both an economic and environmental perspective.

Based on our latest quote, a new PV system, ground-mounted in a field near one of our larger equipment sheds (to which we can connect to the homestead electric service), would run about $33,363. In addition to seeking the federal tax credit, we might also apply for the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP), administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development offices. This program offers competitive grants for up to 25 percent of the total eligible project costs. Our business will also take advantage of the equipment depreciation under Section 179 of the IRS tax code, which will allow us to deduct as a depreciable expense the entire cost of the renewable energy system equipment in one year.

There’s nothing more satisfying than watching our electric meter spin backward. Sure, we’ve had a few ups and downs. That’s life. But generating our own renewable energy on-site has been pivotal to our success as a business and self-reliant homestead, and our goal of making the world a better place.

John D. Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist operate Inn Serendipity bed-and-breakfast completely powered by wind and sun in rural Wisconsin. Their most recent book is Homemade for Sale: How to Set Up and Market a Food Business from Your Home Kitchen, available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store.

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