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Sunday, December 20, 2015

A few thoughts on Energy Independence

Years and years ago, I lived in the Mojave Desert.  I was stuck buying electricity from one of the most expensive utilities in the United States: Southern California Edison.  The only affordable way to cool your house in the summer months was by using an evaporative cooler.  People who cooled with air conditioners were either wealthy or had old homes, built before electrical prices went sky-high.

Heating and cooling are usually the largest portion of home electrical use.  In the summer, as mentioned above, the desert house was cooled with an evaporative cooler.  An evaporative cooler uses a 1-2 Horsepower (HP) fan to blow air across wet media.  Air conditioners use an 8-15 HP motor to run a refrigerant compressor.  Your electric bill will adjust by x8 accordingly.  In the winter months, we heated the desert house with a wood stove, and used a cheap box fan with a 1/25 HP motor to circulate hot air throughout the house.  The furnace rarely ran, so our electric bill was quite low in the winter months.

Even with such small electrical loads, summer electric bills were pretty high.  The base rate for a SoCal Edison customer was $0.15 per kw-hr back in the 1990's.  Where I now live in 2015, the base rate is still under $0.075 per kw-hr.  Ha!  20 years of inflation and the rates here are still half of what I was paying then.  I really like living in a place that has plenty of hydro power.

At the time when I lived in the Desert, I lived on 2.5 acres of sand.  The place was frequently windy, and nearly always sunny.  It's difficult to describe how very harsh the sunlight is out on the desert.  My RV shower (which is plastic) developed noticeable yellowing due to UV exposure in just one summer where the sun shone through the window.  White PVC sprinkler pipes turn brown, and then black, if you leave them out in the sun for very long.

Nowadays utilities are racing to develop major solar projects in that region, but at the time I was mostly interested in keeping SoCal Edison's hands off my paycheck every month.  If I were still out there, I would probably have installed a small wind turbine and a solar array by now.

Solar panels are now down to about $1/watt.  With rebates, they are probably close to $0.70 per watt. If you live in that area, and spent about $10K on an installation (you also need an inverter), you should be able to get the utility completely out of your wallet.  The payoff would be about eight years.

Alas, now I live in an area with much more diffuse solar flux, and I'm surrounded by big trees that would require putting a wind turbine way the heck up in the air.

Below is a map showing the intensity of solar radiation across the US.  I used to live in an area that is red, but now I live in a green area.  On the bright side, there's less skin cancer and wrinkles here.

Below is a map of average wind speed.  Again, I once lived in an orange place, but now live in a green place.  Can't say I miss the wind much, however.  On the other hand, there's no strong naturally-occurring resource here that an individual can readily turn into electrical power :(

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