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Solar Power, Voodoo Style

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Solar Power, Voodoo Style

"Ultimately, it's about personal responsibility."

Money. Fear. Social responsibility. Pain, push, pull. These are three of the prime motivators in people doing something differently, and they all come together in a business that grew an astonishing 40 percent last year—solar energy.

Energy costs are rising, even here where we have some of the least expensive power costs in the nation—currently about 8 cents per kilowatt hour in Idaho through Avista, slightly less through Northern Lights— compared to the national average of 12 cents per kilowatt hour. But when those pennies add up, they create pain in budgets that have stretched in response to the nation’s economic woes.

Additionally, many families in North Idaho, along with our neighbors in western Montana, are living in rural areas, where power disruptions are common and where the cost of bringing power into a new area of construction can be prohibitive.

Fear can also push people into considering alternatives to a sole reliance on the national electricity grid; fear that the seemingly unlimited power available to us at the flip of a switch might one day not be so available. Although paying this month’s electric bill might not be so difficult, some are looking down the road and planning for a time when that monthly bill might become more of a burden, due to income loss, peak oil or even national disturbances such have been seen in other countries of late.

Solar power also offers the pull of social responsibility—an image that solar is a power source we can take pride in using. We can happily power our way through the day without feeling a responsibility for entire mountains leveled in order to access their coal, earthquakes due to fracking in the attempt to extract more natural gas, or the truly frightening implications of a nuclear energy plan that doesn’t adequately address potential dangers.

Recent trends also offer a monetized pull toward solar energy—the ability to hook into the electric grid and sell back any excess power produced.

Don Clark of Sandpoint-based Voodoo Solar is one business poised to reap the benefits of the growing interest in alternative forms of energy production. Specializing in the sale and service of solar panels and related equipment, Don recently opened a storefront on Fifth Avenue in Sandpoint, and stands ready to talk to people about switching to solar power.

I say “talk” instead of “sell product” because for Don, talking (and thinking) is step number one for anyone considering installing some solar panels.

“One of the first things I ask people (interested in solar power) is, ‘What is your motivation?’ If it’s entirely financial, then (going solar) might be a dubious prospect for them.” The immediate return on investment from converting to electricity generation from solar panels is currently not enough to make the decision practical if you go into it with the sole intent of saving money in the short term. But for those interested who have additional reasons in mind, Don is willing to move to step two—which still doesn’t involve buying any product.

“I advise people to sit down and really think about what they’re using electricity for. For example, using electricity to create heat is simply not efficient.” The ‘Big Four’ wasters of energy in the average home, he believes, are electric-run furnaces, ovens, hot water heaters and dryers. “No one using solar electricity with an off-grid system should be powering these (typical) appliances,” he said.

At the least that means converting to gas- or propane-powered appliances, but the issues go even deeper. Are you using a dryer in the summertime instead of hanging laundry outside to dry? Do you need to keep an entire water heater full of water hot at all times, or can you get by with on-demand water heaters? Did you know that European appliances are more energy efficient than those made in the U.S.—and that you, too, can buy those appliances? One solar panel could run a “truly energy-efficient” refrigerator, Don says.

Solar power, you see, in Don’s worldview, is more than just putting up a few panels in the back yard—a lot more. Someone who truly “invests” in solar power will change not just how they obtain their electricity, but will change their lifestyle as well.

“The big benefit [to solar power] is something you can’t really measure,” he said. “It’s in how it changes your life in a really big way. Ultimately, it’s about personal responsibility,” he said.

Lest you think, like some in the tea party, that solar power is simply “environmentalism’s plan of blasting us back into the dark ages,*” this type of reflection on power usage is not to say don’t use any power at all. “Our family philosophy is to use all the electricity you want, but not to waste it,” Don explained.

When a person is at the correct starting point (i.e., has evaluated their usage and their reasons for wanting an alternative energy system), Don is ready to talk product, to guide you from the point of knowing what your energy requirements are to knowing what equipment you’ll need to make that happen.

For a quick look at the big picture, Don said you can estimate your equipment costs at $1,000 per kilowatt hour per day. “Take a look at what your electric bill says is your kilowatt usage, and divide that by 30,” Don said. Then multiply that amount times 1,000  dollars for an idea of what a system to provide your current level of energy usage would cost.

So how does that work? My energy bill, in a house heated with wood but with otherwise all-electric appliances and a shamefully profligate use of energy, averages around 900 kwh per month of usage, or 30 kwh per day. So it would cost around $30,000 for a solar system for my home at the level I currently use energy.

That sounds pricey, but bear a couple of things in mind. At Avista’s posted rates, in 25 years I would pay almost $22,500 for  my electricity usage, if the price never goes up. (Like that’s going to happen.) In addition, my solar panels have added at least some level of value to my home. And the durability of the equipment is high; most components carry a 25-year warranty. Add to that a current 30 percent federal tax credit that helps to make these installations more cost effective, and an Idaho program that allows a 100 percent tax deduction spread over five years

But the best part is that the technology has advanced to the point where people interested in solar power are now looking at what’s called “grid-tie” systems. In other words, your home is still connected to the electric grid, and that grid becomes your backup source of electricity on days when there’s not enough sunlight to meet your power needs. (Don says, by the way, that you can roughly judge those days by “whether or not you need to squint.”) On sunny days, however, when you’re busy generating more power than you can actually use, the system sends that extra power out to the electric grid, and the electric company pays you for it.

All of which suddenly makes the cost of installing a solar power system a lot more feasible, which likely explains part of the reason why this is such a rapidly growing industry.

In addition, you can start small—systems these days are modular and can be added to as needed. And by the way... despite what your mental image might be, most panels in areas with our latitude and climate are no longer installed on the roof of your house but, instead, are mounted on poles in your yard.

Don has sold a range of solar power systems, from a 16,000 watt residential system to small systems anywhere between 20 and 135 watts for boats.

“The most common off-grid system that we sell features about 2,500 watts of solar and costs around $25,000,” Don said. “It is large enough to power an entire household of energy-conservative people in good style.”

If you’re ready to take a look at how you use energy, Don is ready to help.

“I look at solar power as an investment,” Don said. “You’re not just investing in your future, you’re investing in your now.”

If you’d like to learn more, visit Don at his store, located at the corner of 5th and Cedar in Sandpoint.

* Quote from Ray Harvey of the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, “Wind or Nuclear?” 

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Landon Otis

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Homepage, Headlines, electricity, solar power, alternative energy, Voodoo Solar, Don Clark, energy conservation

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