DRA Member Projects
1) Kim and Don Kelley: “DRA Members Build Energy-Efficient Solar-powered Home”. Published Apr. 2011 in the Action Alert newsletter
2) Bill and Julie Rosin: “Wind, Solar and Organic Farm… Oh My!”. Published June 2011 in the Action Alert newsletter
3) Cliff Millsapps: “Solar Energy Salvation in SD”. Published Aug. 2011 in the Action Alert newsletter
4) Roger and Linda Svec: “Self-made Efficiency”. Published Oct. 2011 in the Action Alert newsletter
5) Lealand and Jennifer Schoon: “Power At Any Size: Small Applications for Solar”. Published Dec. 2011 in the Action Alert newsletter
DRA Members Build Energy-Efficient Solar-powered Home
The first installment of the CED Committee’s Energy Efficiency Project Featurettes
We (Kim and Don Kelley) live on a small farm in the Nemo area of the Black Hills, where we grow most of our own vegetables and fruit. We think living in South Dakota implies that you believe in self-reliance, and we like that ideal. When we recently began to plan for our new home we approached it with this same self-reliance perspective, and after feeling the continual rise in utility bills over the years, we’re under no illusion that the upward trend will change. Consequently we decided to go for maximum energy efficiency and renewable energy.
This new house project will result in our paying only for phone and internet utilities, plus small amounts of propane for cooking and back-up water heating. Since our home is in a valley without much wind energy potential, we decided on solar electricity, also referred to as photovoltaic or PV. The more we learned about the practicality and affordability of solar power, the less we thought of it as something exotic or unreliable. Plus, we were already sold on the value of passive solar space heating, super insulation, and efficient lighting and appliances. These things made sense to us even without our basic commitment to reducing our carbon/energy footprint. Our involvement with DRA’s Community Energy Development Committee has solidified our hope that South Dakotans will increasingly believe that energy conservation is the way to go, for lots of reasons.
We have worked toward our goal in a long-term, do-it-yourself manner. Our off-grid, solar-electric power system has been supplying all our electricity for the last 2 years. The system is off-grid, rather than grid-tied, mainly because of SD’s lack of a net-metering incentive. Utilities in SD (unlike those in almost all other states) are not required to pay for electricity sent to them from customers at a rate comparable to what they charge consumers.
The new solar house is also a mile distant from the nearest electrical power line. We found that the cost of trenching and installing a power link would have been comparable to the total investment for our independent electrical system. This, along with the lack of a net-metering incentive for cost recovery, led us to include a battery bank in the system rather than tying into the grid.
Other features of the house presently include: Passive solar construction (using the thermal mass of concrete and masonry to absorb the sun’s heat from south-facing windows); earth berming around the lower story; extra attention to wall, ceiling, and floor insulation and general air-tightness; a wood-burning masonry heater for supplemental space heating (sometimes called a “Finnish” or “Russian” stove, requiring much less wood and emitting much less pollution than regular wood stoves); and energy-efficient lighting and appliances. Features planned but not yet installed will include: Roof collectors for solar domestic hot water supply; rainwater collection and purification for domestic use; and composting toilets (greatly reducing water consumption).
The solar-electric system has performed flawlessly, powering our household needs as well as heavy-duty power tools. We have been delighted with its essentially carefree operation, without significant compromise of creature comforts or convenience. Although at the time we began building it was difficult to find local qualified solar installers (so we designed and installed the system ourselves), that situation has now changed. And although our electrical generation system cost us about what you’d spend for a new, full-size pickup truck, prices have since come down and continue to head downward. Federal incentives have also become more attractive in recent years. Had we been living in some states with their own incentive programs, our system would have cost about half what it did—SD has no comparable program as yet.
DRA’s CED committee is currently working on gathering basic information for people to decrease their energy bills, as well as a list of professionals in the state that help with energy assessments and other energy services. In the meantime, if you have any general questions please direct them towards Luke Temple at: email@example.com. Although we can’t claim to be experts in renewable energy or energy efficiency, Luke can forward any specific questions folks may have about our home and experiences and we’d be happy to talk, perhaps steering them to professionals for more detailed answers.
Wind, Solar and Organic … Oh My!
The second installment of the CED Committee’s Energy Efficiency Project Featurettes
Julie and I (Bill Rosin) are on a certified organic farm/ranch in north-central South Dakota near Selby. We’ve been certified since 1996. We grow a variety of small grain and have a herd of Angus beef cows, whose calves are also certified organic. We are also practitioners and students of Parelli natural horsemanship.
We have a real “old MacDonald’s” farm, not only because we’re kind of old, but there is variety of critters here…chickens, ducks, geese, guineas, three breeds of sheep, dairy goats, a few jersey cows, a mama pig and five piglets, seven horses, a mule, six dogs, and the usual farm cats. We live a half mile from the nearest road, so most everything is truly free ranging. We also have a pretty big garden, which seems HUGE, however when I measured it, it’s only .12 of an acre.
We became interested in producing some of our own electricity because all our grid electricity comes from coal. We wanted to offset at least some of that, while hopefully showing others it could be done. We have had remarkably little interest though; I guess folks still think that if it isn’t being done, it can’t be done.
We got our Skystream 3.7 wind charger in June, 2007 from Southwest Windpower, a manufacturer and retailer of wind turbines. The Skystream 3.7 is one of their more popular models; there is several more in use in our area, including one at the local school.
These units can put out up to over 3000 watts on a windy day. The local school’s wind charger has recently put out over 50 kWh in one day, which is a significant amount considering that the average South Dakota home consumes 34 kWh in one day (according to a 2009 analysis from the U.S. Energy Information Administration).
Additionally, we have a bank of seven photovoltaic (PV) panels, connected to the same meter as the wind charger. We like them, very simple and trouble free. They are more expensive per output potential than wind, but we bought our panels used from the same dealer that sold us the wind charger. He just happened to have some for sale, so we were lucky. The wind and solar system each cost about ten grand installed. However we didn’t apply for or receive any tax breaks, rebates, grants. We regret not applying for a USDA grant; I think we could have gotten it and would have offset about $2,500. The dealer told us not to bother, back in 2007, competition for the funds were intense, and priority given to bigger projects, but now I think there are better incentives.
The PVs put out about 1300 watts at their peak. Interestingly, in winter even though the days are so much shorter, the efficiency of the PV’s increases with colder temperatures, so the output is not affected too much throughout the year.
Our system is kind of a nice “hybrid” system. Often one application works when the other isn’t. On bright sunny windy days, the meter spins like mad; I think I should grease it.
But of course, with no net metering, we pretty much ‘give’ our excess away. The local utility takes just a few dollars off our bill each month, it’s a pittance.
We’ve found that rural electric coops vary in their acceptance and tolerance of these units, ours has been pretty good. I have a friend nearby who has a similar turbine, with just him and his wife in a modest sized home, and their bill is cut substantially.
As people become more familiar with the benefits of utilizing small scale renewable energy to produce some of their own energy, many have started to investigate how they too can cut their energy bill. However, along with the increased excitement and interest, there are some things to keep in mind while looking for a system to buy.
It’s not my intention to discourage anyone from doing home grown energy, and food, but there are some pitfalls to look out for. Being knowledgeable about these issues before getting into a project can save some significant time and personal energy, since our wind charger sure had its bugs.
It was struck by lightning and fried within a week of installation. However the system was under warranty and was replaced by the company. There were also some problems resulting from cold weather, the company seemed to have disregarded that it gets cold up here, but they have since been resolved too. Overall we’ve had two completely new units installed because of problems. The company has been pretty good about getting them replaced, but not all companies are, so it is important to check into their warranty and service policies.
Another important feature to look for when purchasing a wind turbine is if it has a vane on the unit housing. A common scenario in SD, the wind blows from one direction one day, calms at night, and next day comes up gradually from the opposite direction, and the turbine will not “flip” to orient into the wind.
But the biggest bugaboo, and this is something rural folks need to be aware of….the grid voltages in the country can vary, depending on how far you are from a substation. These turbines are programmed to cut out at about 131 volts, and if you’re near a substation your grid voltage may already be up to 127 or so, and when it’s windy, especially if the turbine is a distance from your house, it boosts the voltage to over the limit. We had that problem for several years, and it really cut into our production. The local utility finally gave us permission to put up to 134 volts in our line at the farm, and we were able to reprogram ours so it works beautifully since. Like everything, it’s computer controlled. The local school’s wind tower did not have this problem, because it was connected through Montana-Dakota Utilities and towns have their own substation, so grid voltage is always lower.
A great solution to prevent this at the utility level is to install devices at the substations to automatically adjust the voltage according to “demand”. Having higher than “normal” voltage is very wasteful, like having more than necessary pressure in a water line. There are utilities that actually subsidize devices to reduce voltage at point of use, and it’s saving both them and customers lots of money, and in some cases eliminating the ‘need’ for more power plants.
However a number of utilities can’t, or think they can’t, afford the devices, which is unfortunate since many co-ops have seen an increase in their electricity demand. Due to the big increase in corn and bean production up in this area, and so many more grain bins with air systems to dry grain, according to our local co-op manager. I often wonder if this energy use is ‘figured in’ when an analysis is made of the ‘efficiency’ of ‘modern’ farming.
I really think if local energy systems, electric vehicles and renewables would have been a priority for research and development we wouldn’t need to import a drop of oil today.
A photo of Zippy, our all electric pickup. It needs new batteries, otherwise I used to be able to go over 20 miles on a charge. It takes about 1500 watts when first plugged in to charge, so if the wind’s blowing, or the sun’s shining, or both, it runs for free.
Solar Energy Salvation in SD
The third installment of the CED Committee’s Energy Efficiency Project Featurettes
We are seeing solar energy as salvation, both for a cleaner world, and as an energy resource that will last, and best of all, we are on the threshold of it being economically competitive with fossil fuels. South Dakota has a great solar resource, as our great crops and grass demonstrate. However, all the renewable energy news is about wind power, and how the lack of power line capacity is holding up the potential for development. No sense putting up wind farms, if we don’t have the line capacity to haul the generated electricity to big energy markets. But with photovoltaic (PV) panels using the sun, we can make a fair amount of our electricity on roof tops, front yards, or mounted on city utility line poles. We can make significant power where we use it, during the day when we use it. Many other states have figured this out, have voted in incentives, and are actively installing PV, which is a great boost to their energy mix. PV has helped immensely where population growth wants more electricity, but no one wants a new power line crossing their view-shed to haul the extra electricity.
Getting solar where it is today has been a long road, and I’ve walked most of it. As a young man in 1975, I got interested in a solar career. It was mostly thermal solar then, and I decided to get the nuts and bolts experience working as an apprentice plumber, then to finish college in mechanical engineering. I took an evening plumbing codes class, led by an instructor that was a 40 year plumbing veteran. One night after class, I cornered him with all my solar ideas and he proceeded to stomp some of the enthusiasm out of me. Basically, he told me that after 40 years in plumbing, he didn’t want any part of the then engineered panels, cycling water where at times the water had any possibility of freezing, or boiling, where both could rupture expensive copper and aluminum equipment, and have water pumping out somewhere between the roof and basement. I decided on a different direction, the oil embargo ended, people flocked back to cheap mindless fossil fuels, and the infantile solar development slowed to a crawl. The industry had been young and booming so there had been some poorly engineered products put out, and more than a few people had bad experiences with the early technology which spoiled the flavor of solar for several years.
PV panels largely came available to the public in the 1970′s, and I bought one from a hobby shop for $100 (1979 dollars). It was a toy. You can buy about the same thing today for one tenth the cost. It took until the early 1990′s for PV panel prices to get down where with a little idealistic reasoning I could rationalize buying again. Within a few years I had grown my system to 500 watts of panels, with the panels being about half the cost of the total system. The total system included panels, large battery bank, special DC refrigerator/ freezer, meters, breakers, inverter, and other misc. equipment. All this would cost you about $9000 today with inflation. On a really sunny day I can make around a kilowatt-hr. of electricity. This would power something that took 1000 watts of power (vacuum sweeper) for one hour, or something that took 100 watts (couple light bulbs) for 10 hours, or something that drew 10 watts (radio) for 100 hours. It would have been a fair amount of electricity 70 years ago, but today Americans typically burn through many times that much in a day.
If you are living independent of the grid then you have to bank some of those 1000 watts for days when the sun doesn’t shine. And of course nothing is 100% efficient, so there might be 5-15 % loss in the batteries, wiring, inverter, and whatever other equipment you are using. I don’t want to discourage you here, as I think that with the right incentives, installers, and homeowner enthusiasm PV can be a positive experience. I think many people would be happy with a grid tied system.
A grid tied system uses the power line to your house allowing for two directions for electricity to flow. When you produce more then you use, your power goes on to others to use, and if you are using more then you are producing, then it flows from the grid into your home. Here you have some extra cost for interfacing with the power company, but it would be much less than the batteries in an independent power system. A family that is fairly flexible and has a modest power demand could get a nice safe grid tied system installed system for $30,000.
A lot of the cost in a totally independent system is in batteries and optional backup generator. My battery bank for my little system cost over $2000, and a sine wave backup generator that will run small and medium loads, or keep a battery bank charged is over $1000.
So you can’t go out and buy a solar system that will provide carefree electricity for your every whim for $9000. We moved to a remote home and lived totally on this system for a few years, but my wife at the times comment was; that it was a little like camping. Today I have a half dozen freezers to power for my grassfed beef business, so I’m back on the grid, but I actually like the challenge and discipline of being off the grid, so I’m keeping my energy habits lean (power bill $35 a month, which runs the freezers, hot water heater, stove, lights, fans).
As soon as I get the grassfed beef business where it doesn’t take all my time, I am plotting how to sever the electrical umbilical cord. The first task will be to handle the sizable freezer demand off the grid. I’m thinking about a large super insulated walk-in freezer built into an earth berm using phase change salts, frozen by pumping air through the walls in mid-winter. The large salt water mass melts at temperatures well below freezing with the phase change from solid to liquid would consume an incredible amount of heat cooling the surrounding air inside. It would likely stay below freezing all summer, but to make sure, I’d have all the extra power (power after the batteries get full on sunny days) from the PV system go to additional cooling of the mass.
There is a vast range of systems for people living off the grid, everywhere from $500 for a really rugged commune with nature type, to over $200,000 to those that have to have Air conditioning and all the bells and whistles. It depends on how much power you have to have, and how inflexible are you are about when you use it.
My argument for the smaller system is that there is embodied energy and resources in a PV panel, and although it has massive advantages over using other exploitative energy forms. The year we lived in a remote cabin in Tennessee we had a very basic lifestyle. The 500 watts of PV ran a super-efficient (expensive) 19 cu ft 1/2 refrigerator, 1/2 freezer, a few lights, tools, and occasional fan, and that’s it. It was sufficient to allow me to manufacture and retail a solar instrument called the Solar Pathfinder, and to not work the batteries to hard I mostly ran electrical equipment when the sun was supplying extra electricity.
Here’s to a cleaner PV energy future.
The fourth installment of the CED Committee’s Energy Efficiency Project Featurettes
DRA members Roger and Linda Svec operate a family farm near Estelline, SD. They have made a priority to provide healthy alternatives to the mass produced food often available at local supermarkets. They produce grass finished poultry (primarily chickens), lamb and beef. In addition to their dedication to farming responsibly, they have committed significant effort to living as efficiently as possible.
Six years ago they started building their new home, learning as they went and only contracting out help when necessary. Being deeply involved in every process of building an energy efficient home has given them a unique perspective on what works, what doesn’t and what’s practical. I traveled to the Svec farm to speak with Roger and Linda about their home, and the following are questions I asked about their experiences and advice they might give to others looking to have a more efficient living space.
DRA: Up to this point, what energy efficiency elements has your family installed in your home?
Svecs: Since we started from the ground up a lot of efficiency materials were built into the structure. Super insulated panels [SIP] make up much of the outside skeleton of the building (see photo at left / click all to enlarge). SIP’s come in large panels, prefabricated to the specific building’s measurements.
When materials were needed to support heavier weights, such as below the garage, we used Fold Form thermal mass walls (see photos at right). Fold Form is a product that comes in two 1ft.X 4ft. sets of rectangular pieces made from a Styrofoam, that are held together with plastic ties; the product is available with an eight or twelve inch space between. These segments are stacked on top of each other, braced, rebar is installed in-between and concrete is then poured / pumped in. The “form” is left insulating the wall both inside and out. The plastic ties also provide a means of attaching wall coverings, such as sheet rock, paneling, etc.
As the floors are heated with in-floor pex tubing, insulation was also installed under the floor before it was poured (see photos at left). Due to the amount of insulation and the in-floor heating, the basement doesn’t have the “basement” feel.
The air tight construction methods and materials warranted the use an air exchanger or air handler. This device enables the climate controlled interior air to transfer some of its energy to the incoming fresh air. The air is then evenly distributed through the building using a traditional ducting system.
A ground source heat pump is used to heat and cool the home (see photo at right). This means heat is drawn “pumped” from the thermal mass of the earth to heat the building, and heat is “pumped” out of the house to the earth to cool the building. This is accomplished by means of underground pipes containing an antifreeze solution. The design of the heat pump allows for excess heat produced during the heating season to be used to heat the domestic water, reducing the requirements of the water heater. Additionally a fractional horsepower water pump is used in the hot water circuit to provide nearly instant hot water at each faucet, reducing the amount of water used waiting for the water to get hot at the faucet.
Timbers and other materials from a dismantled barn were used for support columns, interior load bearing walls, and the attached garage (see photo below). This saved on the cost of construction materials (if you don’t count the labor for salvaging the material), reused some excellent materials, and gives the interior a special character.
DRA: A significant part of the construction was done by your family, how difficult has everything been?
Svecs: Well when we started the project in 2005, in our first pour of cement we wrote ‘2005/2006’, since we thought it would surely not take more than another year to complete. It is now the summer of 2011, and although we are very comfortably living in the space there are several “finishing touches” yet to be accomplished.
There have been many challenges, but as each one is met there is the satisfaction of solving the problem as a reward. The heat pump installation was perhaps one of the more elaborate challenges, as compared to say the clothes chute to the laundry room from the upstairs bathroom. You can see the heat pump, but not the laundry chute.
DRA: What would you say are the pros and cons of a super-efficient home?
Svecs: One of the definite pros of this home is the significant reduction in our heating and cooling bill. In our old, very inefficient house, heating and cooling costs averaged around $200. Our highest cost over the last year, with the heat pump system, was for heating in January for less than $90, while averaging $35 from May until September for cooling.
The main con, as many people are aware of, is the upfront costs involved from using the latest technologies and materials. However within a matter of time, all the investments will be recouped, and in some cases there are cash incentives to use these new technologies.
DRA: What was the main inspiration for your family to start this project?
Svecs: The main reason was simply, we needed a new house. Our old house had very high energy bills due to inefficiencies, so when building our new home we wanted to use the best products available, within reason.
DRA: Finally, would you encourage others to take on a similar project? If so, would you have any advice for them?
Svecs: One-thing we learned is the importance, from the very beginning, to design the home with efficiencies in mind. An example from our home is all the water appliances are in one end of the building. This reduced the amount of plumbing required, and the number of things to work around such as air-conditioning ducting, wiring, etc. We also found there are a number of building companies that make prefabricated materials that are energy efficient and easy to install. The exterior walls took about a day per level to finish (under-ground, upper level, and roof sections).
We designed our home with the thought of ways to save money through energy efficient ways. Before we even explored areas of solar energy, in the realm of solar panels and batteries, we thought of how to best position our home to capture the most sun energy. Designing our home so sun that would come through our south windows in the winter time, and take advantage of our walk out porch, which shades the house during the summer when the sun is at its highest level. We also built our house into the side of a south facing slope (hill). This provides for coolness in the summer and insulated warmth in the winter.
Prior to purchasing the land, we evaluated how much wooded area is surrounding our home-site to evaluate the efficiency of using dead wood as a heat source, without having to buy or haul wood from long distances. Our air-air heat pump, an above ground system, utilizes the heat out of the cold winter air, before it kicks in to full auxiliary heat, when we choose not to use our wood stove. The wood stove is centrally located in the basement of our house with an open stair case next to it. Ceiling fans help in moving the warm or cool air to places in the house where it is most needed. We were conscious as to how we insulated our home for energy efficiency also.
Our home is a log house. What makes these logs unique is that they are harvested near Rosebud, South Dakota. Most people likely do not realize that the Rosebud and Pine Ridge have Pine Forests. These Prairie logs are unlike Mountain logs, in that their growth is much slower. Thus the R value in the logs is much denser; which is great for insulation. In the winter, the interior side of the logs absorbs the stove heat. They provide a very uniform, radiant heat; unlike any stick built house. We come from a long line of Nebraska and Dakota ranching lineage. We aren’t so much “Green” as we are conservationists and think in a way of efficiency.
Now with a little background on our home and our way of thinking, the readers may have a better understanding of what we are achieving with solar supplementation. We live in an area where our electrical rates are very inexpensive. Yet, we understand levels of responsibility and are interested in alternative methods of energy. Because our rates are inexpensive, it makes solar as an alternative rather expensive. So we have implemented systems on very small, practical scales.
First, we utilize solar energizers (www.parmakusa.com) for our electric livestock cross-fencing. This is a very portable system which can be moved to enhance proper grazing management, for which we apply to our land. The most basic solar energy resource we have is sun to grass, grass to ruminant, ruminant to a milk or meat food source. The same concept can be considered as a homeowner.
Second, we utilize an electric bicycle (www.currietech.com), when convenient. My commute to work is an eleven mile gravel road, one way. I have used the electric bicycle to travel that distance. It takes almost one hour to travel those eleven miles. As the price of fuel increases, this might be a viable alternative. The batteries may be recharged with a solar battery generator.
Third, our solar generator (www.mysolarbackup.com), is an expensive, but wonderful alternative because of it’s flexibility. It can be charged and taken with for a weekend camping adventure. It is great for supplying an alternative energy source for basic lighting in home. It is great to run a sump pump or any electric tool or appliance in an area of the ranch for which we don’t have electricity. The dimensions are only: 8.5 inches wide X 18.5 inches long X10.5 inches tall and 65 pounds. It is charged by 90 watt solar panel, providing 1800 watts of peak power. We have tested running a 21 cubic foot refrigerator for two hours or a twin tube twelve volt fluorescent shop light for ten hours. So in the case of a winter power outage, or simply to step off the grid; it is a handy piece of equipment.
Fourthly, we are about to install a solar system that we find advertised often with a well known (www.menards.com) distribution center. This will be a four panel solar system, with an output of 60 watts. This system we can then have several twelve volt batteries, charged for longer power outages or additional supplemental lighting.
We can all play our part in being more energy efficient. When you start using solar alternative, you develop more respect for the energy sources, whether hydroelectric or coal or wind, for which we take for granted.