By Kathleen McKevitt – Special to the Pahrump Valley Times
What does it mean, exactly, to be off the grid? There are degrees to being self-sufficient. Totally off the grid is using no electric, water or other public service to live well and not do without. It means being self-sustaining and most people are surprised at how easy it is, how low the cost and how available it is to lower power and water and disposal bills.
Some residents are doing that entirely or a little bit, toe-in-the-water, so to speak. A few are successfully living again, “off the land.”
According to USA Today, in 2006, 130,000 families in the United States were living totally off the grid with 33 percent being added every year. Fully off the grid families number over 500,000 nationwide, and the number is growing rapidly.
On the other hand, families in the U.S. using one or two means of lessening their reliability on public power and water, such as one windmill, a small pack of solar panels, etc., is increasing so quickly, the latest numbers, according to Joseph Opatik, a local supplier of solar equipment said, “It’s hard for the government to keep accurate numbers.”
The latest report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), November 2012, states growth of solar power rose over 500 percent in one year’s time.
At that rate, it’s little wonder windmills and roofs with solar panels dot the landscape.
The EIA estimates solar panel installations will increase on homes and businesses by 70 percent in 2013.
In Nevada, the Solar One installation of 400 acres of solar panels is the equivalent of taking 20,000 cars off the road annually.
According to Opatik, owner of Affordable Solar in Pahrump, people can start with something as simple as a generator or a gable or roof-mounted attic fan. The latter runs less than $300.
A portable generator can cost about $2,000 but you can plug everything into it from your well meter, solar panels, ceiling fans and all appliances, including standard farm appliances.
Solar panels last 25 years, and Opatik said he reminds clients that President Carter installed solar panels on the White House in 1977 and they have yet to be replaced.
“Until recently,” he said, “cost has been prohibitive. Today a family can self-install a whole house and have it fully operational in a few weeks and have a monthly electric bill of $15, which is net-zero.”
James Thornton and his family live in Pahrump and have installed a 7,000-watt system of solar panels. The system is 93 percent efficient and the Thorntons are delighted. The family enjoys checking the meters in their home, which register carbon emissions saved, and the size of their electric bill, which is, net-zero most of the time.
An added perk — the Department of Energy gives them a 30 percent credit on their taxes — now standard for people who are electing to take measures to reduce their carbon footprint.
Thornton turned to Opatik for his services. “His products and services were half the price of Las Vegas vendors, and ‘Joe’ was right here to oversee and support the entire effort.”
Thornton is a self-proclaimed strong supporter of local businesses. The quote from Las Vegas vendors was around $52,000 to fully install, and Affordable Solar installed Thornton’s system for $28,000. Thornton’s home is 3,800 square feet, with a 1,100 square foot guest house, and includes a large swimming pool and several out-buildings.
He said the system will be paid off in eight years and is saving him $2,600 annually.
What happens when the system is no longer under warranty after 25 years? Thornton said, “Nothing. It just keeps doing what it’s supposed to do as long as you take care of it.” Maintenance means keeping it clean by either dusting or spraying with water occasionally to keep desert dust off the panels.
Important concerns for those planning to consider solar energy: “Get local and knowledgeable support if possible. Also, find a good licensed electrician to inspect everything you do, a master electrician, with drawings and people with a good reputation,” said Thornton. “It’s vital to remember that you’re dealing with an energy source and you can burn your house down if you take risks.”
Some people like to add windmills. Wind in early morning and evening hours will pick up where the solar panels leave off, only adding to the additional cell-storage of electricity.
There are also state incentives in Nevada for windmill installation and geo-thermal for water conservation, and many of the materials for these are made in the U.S.A., according to Opatik.
Tazo Schafer, a part-time resident of Pahrump, built a solar, completely-off-the-grid home in Wickenburg, Ariz., where summer temperatures top out at over 122 degrees. The house has neither heating or cooling, and maintains an average temperature of 76-79 degrees year around.
In Nye County is the new SolarReserve project approved by the U.S. Energy department in November 2011. It’s 14 miles northwest of Tonopah, on leased land from the Bureau of Land Management.
Anticipation of hundreds of construction jobs and close to 50 permanent jobs is expected to avoid emissions of around 290,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually into the atmosphere, and produce enough electricity to power close to 45,000 homes.
Are things changing? Are we waking up as a nation to new ideas, new kinds of businesses, and paying closer attention to the possible perils our planet is headed toward if we don’t make changes?
The answer seems to come from the last line on many solar business’ lists of important facts about them. After cost, number of jobs, etc., there are three words: Fuel Type: SUNLIGHT. And other businesses — Fuel Type: WIND.
Look for Part 2 of Living Off the Grid in the Feb. 15 PVT.