Friday, November 18, 2011

If I have a PV system, why do I need a back up generator?

First, I'll mention that the program scheduled for Nov. 2 at the Beekley Library in New Hartford was cancelled due to the storm. We are currently trying to reschedule, likely for sometime in late winter or early Spring. I'll post it when we have a firm date.
Now, on to my subject of choice today. Backup generators.
As many of us have learned this year, extreme weather events disrupt our lives and remind us of our dependence on fossil fuels. It's always a surprise to people that we also are "powerless" when the grid is down, even with our 38 PV panels shimmering brightly in the sun on our roof. I wanted to explain this phenomenon. Since we are tied to the CL&P grid, we are required to shut down our system to prevent harm to line workers. Our system is also leased, so we cannot make changes to the system, to allow us to add batteries, or other "bypass" systems to the connection we have to the grid. While there are many benefits to a grid tied system (no large room full of expensive batteries to store our electricity), this is one disadvantage. If we had to do over again (and had the money to purchase the PV system ourselves), I still don't think we would have done it differently. Batteries are expensive, dangerous, and require maintenance. Battery technology is improving, but it's still not great enough for me to consider switching to an off-the-grid system.
A more frustrating situation for me during the power outage was the fact that I had to run my little Honda generator, and burn gasoline, just to get my solar thermal loop working (and thus hot water). Duh. That made no sense. So we are currently researching installing several dedicated PV panels (that we would own) and a small battery pack, to power the pumps and sensors on our solar thermal loop in the case of an outage.
One thing I will say about the storm aftermath. Our house was so cozy even without our heating system running for 8 days. It took about 4 days for our slab temperature to drop to 65F, a testament to the excellent insulation and thermal heat sink in our house. When we had the generator running, several hours in the morning and evening, we ran a small electric space heater which was enough to keep us very comfortable.
I have a secret to reveal...I was actually a little bummed when the power came on. I so enjoyed our family time eating dinner by candlelight, having long discussions, playing games and puzzles with our kids. No ipads, laptops, TVs, fights over video games. It wasn't lemons for me, it was slightly sour, but sweet and delicious lemonaid.