A place for me to save a few thoughts

Almost Ready


Our solar power system is installed. Once we pass the Orem City inspection, we can flip the switch.

The system includes 6 panels on our garage roof, 8 huge deep cycle batteries, an inverter (to covert the DC energy to AC), a monitor (to keep track of the energy generated, used, and stored in the batteries), an electrical outlet inside the house, two electrical outlets in the garage, a small fan to vent the battery compartment, and some emergency lighting.

The panels are rated to produce 1.7 KWh each hour the sun is shining and in the right position in the sky (A KW is 1000 watts, and a KWh is 1000 watts for an hour. For example, 10 100 watts light bulbs would use up a KWh in an hour. A slow cooker is rated at 300 watts, so that would use 1.5 KWh if you cooked with it for 5 hours. Note: All the math makes solar power a lot more fun.). We’re hoping the solar panels give us 15 KWh on a sunny summer day and perhaps 8 KWh on a sunny winter day. Our goal is to have available at least 5 KWh per day year round, even if we have three cloudy days in a row. (The batteries provide the power when the sun isn’t shining. The “Dummy” books suggested we store enough power for 4 cloudy days, but the solar guys talked me down to about 3. I still don’t know exactly how much energy the batteries can store and produce, because getting an straight answer about batteries isn’t easy.)

Although we wanted the solar power primarily for emergencies, we decided to hook up a refrigerator and a freezer to the system so that we didn’t waste all the electricity we could produce while we wait for the power to go out. A few weeks ago we noticed RC Willey had a sale on all its Energy Star appliances (Energy Star is a government designation for energy efficient appliances), so we went looking for a refrigerator and a freezer for the garage that would work well with the solar system.

We weren’t too concerned about prices, but we did look closely at how many KWh per year each appliance would need. We found a fridge that used only 400 KWh and a freezer that used 550 KWh. Unfortunately for the environment, none of the Energy Star freezers were frost-free, so Marieta vetoed them all. We ended up buying a freezer that needed 800 KWh. We found that the efficient appliances were relatively inexpensive (and came with government rebates), but they lacked any fancy options like an ice maker or filtered water.

If we assume we will have 1,825 KWh of power to use in a year, we should have more than enough to provide 1,200 KWh for the appliances. We’ll see. We did put the appliances are on a special plug, so that regular power will take over if the batteries run out of juice.

I’m still not sure of the final price of the solar power system, but it will be about $20,000. If we generate and use 5 KWh per day, we will save 50 cents each day on our power bill. If this were an investment (and not just a project to keep me out of trouble), that’s a return of a little less than 1%. With the government rebates (by the way, I would like to thank those of you who pay taxes for contributing to our solar power system), the cost could be cut in half and the return could be as high as 2%. I will let you know the actual amounts once we know them.

In my next message, I hope to explain more about the batteries. I thought it would be a simple calculation to multiply the amount of energy one battery could hold by the number of batteries in the system to find out the total stored power in the batteries, but it’s not that simple. I wish I had paid more attention in my chemistry and physics classes.

Learning More about Electricity

After my last post about solar power, my neighbor Tom Dickson suggested I use propane instead of the sun. For a lot less money I could bury a propane tank in the backyard and run a generator whenever the power goes out. Tom is a really smart guy, and his solution makes a lot of sense.

Normally our electric company generates just enough electricity to match demand. If demand exceeds generating capacity by even 5%, we experience a brownout. If generated electricity exceeds demand, then the extra is usually lost. The power company has to have enough capacity to run all our air conditioners and appliances on the hottest day of the year and also carefully monitor customer usage to match moment-to-moment demand.

Electricity can travel only about 300 miles with our current power lines, so it is usually generated close to the place where it will be used. When you hear someone talk about powering the whole country with wind farms in the Midwest or solar farms in New Mexico, you also hear them talk about a “smart grid.” A smart grid would be one that uses new and more expensive power lines to create a grid that would allow electricity to travel across the county. It would also balance the solar and the wind energies.

Electricity doesn’t store well. You can charge a battery, compress air, or use “pumped storage” (water is pumped up into a large storage tank when there is excess electricity, and then the water is released to power a turbine on the way down when electricity is needed). These methods are very expensive, so it’s unlikely there would always be enough stored power to make up for many cloudy days or windless nights. A wind/solar, long distance transmission, and power storage system could easily cost $3 trillion. That’s about $10,000 for every man, woman, and child in the USA.

Usually a smart grid also includes putting devices in our homes that would automatically turn up the thermostats on our air conditioners whenever demand exceeded capacity. In other words, with a $3 trillion smart grid we could all experience hot flashes.

We typically pay 8-10 cents per KWh for coal, nuclear, or natural gas-based electricity. Solar or wind power costs more like 21 cents per KWh, even after federal and local governments subsidize half the cost. Even ethanol, which makes no sense at all, is cheaper than solar or wind power. As Tom Dickson suggests, propane at about 11 cents a KWh is a no-brainer.

So, why am I still interested in solar power? I guess I am trying to figure the whole thing out.

Thinking about Solar-Powered Electricity

Marieta and I have at least a year’s supply of food. We have stored about 750 gallons of water (I am counting the hot tub). We have first aid kits, portable toilets, a water purifier, and about 100 100 hour candles. What we don’t have is an emergency power supply. We have a small amount of propane for the barbecue and a small amount of wood for the outside fireplace, but neither energy source gives us a way to cook for more than a few days. We have no emergency heating capability.

Lately I have been thinking about the possibility of using solar power during an emergency. I’m not trying to heat the whole house or power a refrigerator or a freezer, but I would like to see if we can use the sun to cook, to watch a small TV, and to perhaps use an electric blanket. To find out if this is possible, I bought Solar Power Your Home for Dummies and The Complete Idiot Guide to Solar Power for Your Home.

I read the Dummies book in an evening, skipping many of the parts I didn’t need to read. I skipped things like “Playing the Energy Game,” “Building a Solar Home,” and “Finding the Moolah to Do the Job.” I also skimmed through many of the details about how electricity works. I quickly learned that building a small solar system is very complicated and expensive.

I also found a lot of information I didn’t need in the Idiot’s book. I was already interested in solar power, so I skipped the all the encouragement. I wasn’t looking for more information about conserving energy, and I didn’t want to learn anything about composting toilets (I am not making this up. You can buy toilets that connect to a composting box in the basement. With the right chemicals, the book explains that there is only a slight scent coming from the box). I quickly learned that solar power is almost more of a lifestyle than it is a source of electricity. You spend more time finding ways to conserve energy than you spend using it.

I was impressed with the small solar powered battery chargers. The chargers open up like a book to reveal the solar panels. With one the size of a small book, you can charge an iPod or a cell phone. With one the size of a large book, you can charge a laptop.

Also available are portable solar-powered generators. The battery and controller are about the size of a large picnic cooler. The solar panel is about the size of a door. With 5 to 6 hours of sun, you get about 1.5 kilowatt hours of electricity. If I understand things correctly, with 1.5 KWh you could run a 100 watt light bulb for 15 hours. Since you normally pay about 8 cents for every KWh, you are only making about 12 cents of power each day with a system that costs more than $3,000.

A built-in home solar system requires a solar panel, a controller, battery storage (expensive batteries, not car batteries), and an inverter. The solar panel collects the energy, the controller transfers the energy to the batteries (if you charge the batteries without a controller, you would overcharge the batteries), the batteries store the energy, and the inverter converts the DC or battery power to AC, the power you normally use in your home. The price for a home system starts at about $10,000.

A solar system requires special batteries. Car batteries are designed to produce a lot of power for a short amount of time, but solar power requires small amounts of energy over a long amount of time. The batteries wear out and have to be approximately replaced every 5 or 6 years.

There are a few of other solar-based options. Solar ovens are available for under $50. When the sun is out the small oven can get up 350 degrees. There are reading lamps and flashlights which can store the sun’s energy during the day for use at night. Solar lights with motion detectors work well for outside security lighting. A good website for solar gadgets is http://www.realgoods.com.

One statement in the Idiot’s book stood out for me: “There’s no such thing as a typical photovoltaic system.” That is a direct quote from page 204, and it says a lot about the current state of solar power technology. It reminds me of when I was a boy and watched my dad put together a stereo system. He bought kits for the amplifier, the turntable and the speakers. He soldered everything together himself. After a few weeks of work, he played an amazing test record of two guys playing ping pong with the ping pong ball going back and forth across the room. The sound was wonderful, the technology amazing, but the average person had neither the money nor the know-how to put together a similar system.

The more I learn about solar power, the more I appreciate the electric company. Our electricity is cheap, easy-to-use, and almost maintenance free. The power goes out only occasionally, and, when it does, a small army of technicians fixes things right away. Although we tend to glorify solar-powered electricity, it is expensive, complicated, intermittent, potentially dangerous, and requires a lot of maintenance. Since I am still interested in solar power, I think it’s safe to say I am either a dummy or an idiot.

A New Venue

A few weeks after we decided not to go to Italy, we met with our Stake President. He suggested we consider a full-time mission here in Utah. We would be able to serve, but also be able to live at home. We thought about it for a few days (we didn’t want to rush into anything this time) and decided not to decide. I guess you could say we were too discouraged and disappointed to make a good choice.

A week ago Saturday President Clegg from the Missionary Training Center in Provo asked us to come in for a visit. The next day he asked us to serve in a missionary branch at the MTC. Without thinking, we said yes. We will help the missionaries with their Sunday meetings (they have enough to do without having to prepare lessons and talks for Sunday), we will help with their orientation when they arrive, and we will help them in other ways throughout the week.

As soon as we finished talking to President Clegg, we rushed to church. Marieta was about to be sustained as a Sunday School teacher in our home ward, but President Clegg had asked that she not have another calling. While there I saw our Stake President in the chapel and told him we had accepted the call at the MTC. As I talked with him, I compared the office couple call in Italy to eating Brussels sprouts (good for us, but not something I expected to enjoy), the full-time mission call in Utah to eggplant (again, very good for us, but not something I would usually choose on my own), and the Missionary Training Center to chocolate cake (something I never turn down). He told me he felt very good about recommending us.

We’re so happy to do something we know we will enjoy. I feel a little guilty turning down two very difficult opportunities only to be rewarded with chocolate cake. We get to work together much of the time, we can see our grandkids almost whenever we want to see them, and we still have plenty of time left over to do almost anything we want to do. The call is for 2 to 4 years.

Sunday was our first day. We started by going to a mission conference in the morning. It was an incredible sight to see 2,000 young men and women in one room committed to taking the Gospel to all the world. They were beautiful and reverent and serious about what they were doing. After the conference we went to a fast and testimony meeting. We are assigned to the 38th branch (there are a total of 57 branches at the MTC). The missionaries are organized into districts of about 8 missionaries each, and into branches of 3 to 5 districts. Our branch has 3 districts now, and a 4th will arrive on Wednesday. The missionaries in our branch all go to Spanish-speaking countries, so prayers and hymns are in Spanish. Marieta knows just enough Spanish to understand the prayers and pronounce the words correctly when she sings. The talks are in English. We stayed for district meetings after the testimony meeting. We enjoyed every minute.

At any one time, the MTC has between 1,400 and 2,800 missionaries. Over 20,000 new missionaries come each year for 3, 8, or 12 weeks of training. Those going to English-speaking missions stay for 3 weeks, most learning a foreign language stay for 8 weeks, and those learning a few harder-to-learn languages stay for 12. Approximately 50 languages are taught in the Provo MTC. The missionaries in our branch stay 8 weeks. There are other MTCs around the world, but none are as large as the one in Provo.

I’m not sure why we can have the dessert before the vegetables, but we’re very grateful.

Thinking About Jonah

Before we knew we weren’t going on a mission, we planned to meet Wendy and Bryan in Hawaii for a few days. Once we knew we weren’t going to Italy, we decided to go ahead with the trip. We’d been on such an emotional roller coaster, so we were ready to relax and figure out what we were going to do next.

As we packed, I mentioned to Marieta that I felt a little like Jonah. I had received a call to serve, but I was going off in the opposite direction. Would our trip turn into such a disaster that we would reconsider our decision?

On the morning of our flight to Hawaii, we were awakened by a call from Air France. Our luggage had been found and was headed home. A great start.

We were booked on a flight through Honolulu, because there had not been room on the non-stop flight to Maui. I thought I would check one more time to see if room was available on the non-stop, and amazingly seven seats had opened up.

Our Maui flight left on-time and the headwinds were less than expected. We landed 20 minutes early in a heavy rain.

Soon after we landed the rain stopped. I went to get the car while Marieta waited for the luggage. The car we had requested was ready and waiting. Meanwhile Marieta found all our luggage and met me at the terminal curb. Just as we had loaded our bags into the car, the rain started up again.

We encountered little traffic on our way to the hotel. The rain stopped as we arrived at the hotel. Our room was ready, even though we had arrived three hours earlier than expected. From our balcony window we could see a family of whales out in the ocean. They looked friendly.

We’re home now after a problem-free vacation. We have almost no idea what we’ll do next, except that I still refuse to take up golf. Love, Pete