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Former Executive VP WordPerfect Corporation. Father of 6, grandfather of 16. Mostly retired, but still thinking.

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

Closed during Previews

After a really great dinner with the Dunaways, we went back to our sad hotel room. Marieta was already stressed out, and then my heart went into A-Fib for the first time in months. We froze for most of the night. We hadn’t heard that we had to request the heat be turned on if we wanted heat.

I slept for about four hours and awoke about 4:30 a.m. to Marieta’s crying. She had been awake the entire time thinking she needed to get dressed and go directly home. I told her missions are like this. I remember my first few weeks in Uruguay when I was 19. I had nothing to go home to, but I wanted to go home. My suitcase at first went to Madagascar instead of Montevideo (the truth). I could hardly speak the language and everything about the foreign country was foreign to me. I couldn’t even find the apartment where I lived, because every building had the same grey stucco. But by the time I finished my mission, I would miss Uruguay much more than I had ever missed home. I explained that feeling miserable at first was normal.

That didn’t help at all. She told me she wanted to go home. Her anxiety and homesickness were too much for her. Just moments into the overture, Marieta, the leading lady of our production, developed a horrible case of stage fright.

Just after she told me we were leaving, she was able to sleep. Of course, I was wide awake. Would she change her mind in the morning? What would the Lord think about us backing out? What would everyone else think? I lay awake trying to figure things out. A mission is hard, but President Dunaway was really trying to make things as comfortable for us as possible.

I would have stayed, of course, if Marieta would stay. I was prepared to be miserable. I don’t go to church because I love it, I go because I should. I go because at the end of the day, I feel better doing what I think I should be doing. If I didn’t know the Lord heard and answered prayers, I would be watching football for sure.

I also thought about how much I love and admire my wife and want her to be happy. She is a good woman and has been a good wife to me. She gave me six really wonderful children and cared for them well. She has stayed strong when I was weak. She is careful not to give offense. She loves her children and grandchildren completely and continues to serve them, to pray for them, and to do her best for them. Surely the Lord loves her.

At 6:30 I couldn’t lay in bed any longer. I took a shower and put on my same clothes from the two days before. By now Marieta was awake and she was absolutely sure she wanted to go home.

At 8:00 a.m. she called President Dunaway to tell him she couldn’t stay. He came to our hotel on his way to church and was very kind. He hoped Marieta would at least stay until she could get a little more sleep. You could tell we weren’t his first missionaries who wanted to go home early.
After he left Marieta was still determined to go home. I called Air France and asked that our lost luggage be rerouted to our home. They had found one bag, but the other’s location was unknown. I called Delta and arranged for flights. During the taxi ride to the airport, I used the Internet on my phone to arrange for a hotel near the airport for our layover in Paris. Because we had paid for 8 nights in advance, the hotel manager in Opera gave us a credit balance for whenever we wanted to return to his hotel (not likely). When we knew President Dunaway was out of church, we called from the airport to apologize. When we were on the plane, Marieta started to feel better. As long as she doesn’t try to talk herself into staying, she is fine.

After everything that went wrong on the trip, it was only appropriate that it would be snowing at the Paris airport. We were held at the gate for four hours before we could leave. We happened to be returning with the same crew that brought us to Paris on Friday. We were easily recognizable since we were wearing the same clothes. They were happy to see Marieta not crying anymore. It was also appropriate that it would be snowing in Utah when we landed. It was a 3 hour drive home.

We talked with our Stake President, and he was also very kind. We will still get our call in the mail tomorrow, but by then he will have asked for a medical release for us. We will just have to figure out another way to serve.