Inside the house, when I flip a switch, charge my cell phone and print out a map, I do it with energy harnessed directly from the sun. A photovoltaic solar array sits securely on a rocky outcrop just a stone's throw from my back door. In times of sunshine, the solar array produces a DC current which- when routed through an inverter- enters my home as AC and runs my appliances. Excess energy is stored in a series of batteries to be used during a cloudy day. For fun, a sample of some cool electricity websites here and here.
Living off the grid. The Armstrong House Education Center is unique because it gets all of its electric energy from the sun- it is completely 'off the grid'. There are no power lines connecting it to the power company, I don't receive a monthly electricity bill and when the town's power goes out in a storm I will be happily streaming videos while I charge my computer. Most houses or buildings that use a solar array are still on the grid, they just simply reduce the amount of power they take from it by capturing the sun's energy. This 'grid tied solar array' is a cool option, but The Pound Ridge Land Conservancy wanted to go to the next level- we chose to be completely powered by the sun. Our electricity doesn't come from burning fossil fuels and its associated environmental effects: acid rain, air pollution, climate change, etc. My house's solar array can produce roughly 5 Kilowatts of electricity on a sunny day. I searched around for equivalencies in coal and found this neat websites: A 100 Watt bulb running 24 hours a day for a year requires 714 pounds of burned coal.
|The current solar array at the Armstrong House Education Center.|
A guiding principle for The Armstrong House is energy efficiency- we want to see how far we can stretch each watt (see future Blog posts for how we do this). That all begins- of course- with choosing the source of the watt. We had a choice: tie ourselves to the grid via an overhead (or buried) power line or rely on a solar array to produce our energy. After crunching the numbers, we determined it would cost more to tie ourselves into the grid than it would to buy our solar array and the first installment of batteries (this is, in part, because we are in a remote location). We decided to stay off the grid.
There is another huge difference between being on or off the grid. If the Armstrong House was on the grid, I wouldn't be forced to monitor my power usage. I could waste as much as energy as I wanted and never worry about it running out. The alternative-locally harnessing a finite amount of solar energy each day- dedicates me to ultimate accountability of my energy use. I have to be mindful of an energy schedule (for instances, doing laundry on sunny days) and always aware of the forecasted weather ('I better do my vacuuming today because we have 3 days of rain coming').
I think about it like this: my solar home is like a living organism with a finite amount of inputs and outputs- in order to live happily I have to think about my actions, my environment (the house) and their combined ecology. In essence, its not just about me anymore. The house is not without luxuries- the downstairs bathroom has an heirloom claw foot bathtub and most floors are of beautifully finished wood- but a luxury that I don't have here is the luxury of infinite resources. I can't ignore the sun. I must mind the rain. On some level, I'm forced to admit that my domestic prosperity is reliant on the weather.
Like I always say, Living Lighter on the Land is about rethinking our place on the planet. Here at the solar-powered Armstrong House Education Center, we are rethinking the relationship between home and homeowner- the more I live here and understand the energy systems, the more it feels like the house and I are in a partnership.