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Solar-generated electrical power for the individual homeowner has been a MOTHER reader's dream since the first burst of national solar enthusiasm in the 1970s. For a brief period, it represented one of our best hopes for avoiding the oil-starved panic that ensued when the OPEC nations announced their embargo in 1973. Fueled by considerable government investment in 1977 with the passage of Carter's first budget, renewable energy technology was propelled into the nation's consciousness.

Several megawatt-size power plants sprang up in the sunlight-rich South and Southwest, where they continue to operate and provide competitively priced power. Individual homeowners did not fare as well, however. They were frustrated to find that generating electricity from the sun was neither cheap nor easy--especially in the North and Northwest, where the average number of sunlight hours is 30% less than in the South. Stand-alone solar electricity-generating equipment was still in its technological infancy; it was not terrifically efficient, and was unable to compete with the cost of the hooking up to the grid of the local utility. Building a remote home, then, meant spending a lot of money to extend a utility's electrical grid, or investing as much or more in a self-sufficient home-generated power system.

Through the 1980s, the industry progressed steadily. Despite reduced government funding for research and development, equipment became more efficient and less expensive. In the last 20 years, home systems have become so competitively priced, in fact, that it is now less expensive to design an independent generating station than it is to extend the utility service grid a half mile!

When electric utility deregulation was proposed in the late '90s, and approved in 30 states by 2000, it appeared, at first, to be a long-awaited opportunity for a variety of electricity suppliers to compete for customers. Such competition had the potential to substantially lower power bills. For a variety of reasons (see "News from MOTHER", page 6), just the opposite has happened. The newly open market has sparked a rise in electricity prices so profound that it threatens to drive the national economy into deep recession. As the first and best alternative to this perpetual price victimhood, solar technology is in a unique position to finnaly get home. owners off the utility hook ... forever.


Large solar power plants use huge mirrors (called focused collectors) to concentrate the sun's heat on a central pipe. Water or another liquid flows through the pipe, where it is heated to become steam. The steam drives a turbine that generates electricity. Those living in areas serviced by these collector plants will enjoy a relatively stable and inexpensive source of energy for decades. For the rest of us, photovoltaic or PV cells are the most practical way to generate power. The WV effect isn't new, however. In 1839, a French scientist named Edmund Becquerel discovered that light falling on certain materials produced electricity, but it wasn't until 1954 that the first modern PV cell was built.

PV cells must be made from semiconductor material, and silicon is by far the most often used. When light strikes the cell, electrons are knocked loose from the silicon atoms and they flow into a built-in circuit, producing electricity. Simple. A cell about four inches in diameter will produce a little more than one watt of direct current (DC) power per hour of direct sunlight. Cells can then be joined together in groups and covered with a transparent material, such as tempered glass, to form modules, which can generate about 50 watts in bright sunlight Modules, in turn, can be joined to form arrays, which can be arranged to generate an unlimited amount of power.

In many small PV systems, the appliance is simply wire directly to the module, but for larger applications such as home use, a power regulator, battery and wiring system are necessary so that energy can be stored for evenings and cloudy days. A fly in the ointment is that solar modules generate DC power and most household appliances require alternating current (AC) power, so systems need a DC to AC power inverter. An inverter has to do more than just change DC to AC, however; it must also modify the electricity to meet the standards of utility power for which most home appliances are designed, In the U.S., utility-generated electricity changes polarity 120 times per second at 60 cycles (or hertz) and is delivered in a "sine" wave form. This means that when a power-hungry appliance, such as a dishwasher, is turned on, the power surge from the utility line is delivered smoothly and gradually, reducing the chance of damage to appliances by a sudden burst of power.

When inverters were first introduced in the early 1900s, they were actually electric motors with moving parts driving an AC alternator. They produced a smooth sine wave, but could only generate a modest mount of power at any given moment, usually no more than one kilowatt (kW). A washing machine or garbage disposal, for instance, can easily draw 2kW. Not only were the inverters incapable of providing enough AC power for even a small home, they were hopelessly inefficient, demanding twice as much DC power as they ultimately delivered.

The following decades brought solid-state inverters, which were a bit more reliable and powerful, though still plagued by poor efficiency. Their wave form, square in pattern, was often accompanied by sudden surges of power. These surges were harmless to hardy appliances but could have potentially disastrus consequences for delicate equipment such as stereos and computers.

In 1985, Trace Engineering (now Xantrex Technologies) introduced its first high-efficiency, modified square-wave inverter, revolutionized the home-power industry. Losing no more than 10% of incoming DC power during inversion, it made the entire family of AC appliances available to the independently powered home. Additionally, the inverter's modified square wave suppressed most of the undesirable effects of the pure square wave. Finally, it could produce 2kW of peak AC current at a cost comparable to lower-powered models. Solid-state, computer controlled, pure sine-wave inverters came next, often reviling for less than $3,000 with an efficiency rating of greater than 90%. These all-in-one units typically include an inverter, battery charger and battery charge, and often a stop/start control for the gas generator. The unit can sense when batteries are depleted and then start the backup generator automatically. This translates into greater flexibility, ease of operation and reduced cost.


So, now the technology is ready and waiting, but is it practical? The answer depends entirely upon the site of a new home. After contacting local utility companies in several states including New York, Tennessee, and Idaho, MOTHER calculated that an average cost for grid extension is $6 per foot if the line is placed above-ground, and nearly $10 per foot if the cables need to be buried. All the companies we contacted provide a certain amount of extension at no charge, usually 300 to 500 feet. If the extension runs 800 feet utilities will charge only for the last few hundred feet. If you run new cable above ground to a home a quarter mile away from the grid in Cairo, New York, for instance, Niagara Mohawk (the utility that covers most of upper and western New York State) will ask for $5,520, or $9,200 if the line must be buried. Design a remote home just a few miles down a rural highway and the cost jumps into the six figure range. And then, of course, yon have a monthly utility bill to look forward to.

Until fairly recently, solar power offered little economic reason to change course. When the first stand-alone units were introduced in the mid-'70s, the systems cost $100 per watt-hour of energy produced. Even at $50 per watt-hour, a system that generated an average amount of home power ran up a $300,000 tab or more. Prices plummeted through the '80s however, and remote home kits currently sell for $3 to 8 per watt-hour. A fully outfitted PV system that supplies 4,000 to 5,000 watt-hours per day in northern climates will run you $15,000 to $20,000. Modules are designed, however, to be joined together, so you can easily start with a small investment and add modules gradually. Once the grid extension of a half-mile or more is reached, the solar alternative will already have paid for itself the minute yon turn it on! Your home will continue to have power even when your neighbors on the grid experience a blackout (as hundreds of thousands of California customers have this year) and your electricity costs will remain stable throughout the life of the system.


How much power will your home need? You can calculate a reliable figure by counting the appliances in your home and tallying the total wattage over the course of an average day. If the television is on for four hours and consumes 65 watts, write 260 watt-hours in the daily column. After a few calculations, the importance of higher efficiency appliances such as compact fluorescent lighting becomes clear.

It isn't uncommon for an average household using grid power to consume 10,000 watt-hours of electricity per day, so how can home owners adapt to half as much? For starters, you need to reexamine your electrical needs. If the daily electrical load for your home is 3,000 watt-hours, your solar system must generate that power plus anywhere from 30% to 40% more. Why the extra wattage? Any electrical system loses some its power through wires and connections, and solar systems lose even more. Battery banks generally waste 15 to 25% of their power while discharging, wires and regulators lose 2% each, and inverters will lose 5% to 10%.

While you are planning, it's important to understand that there are some things average-size PV systems were never meant to accommodate. Electric water heaters and electric baseboard heaters, for instance, consume power in such volume that they cannot be properly supplied without a massive PV array (Amory Lovins once compared heating with electricity to cutting butter with a chainsaw). These appliances, along with cook stoves, clothes dryers and air conditioners--use 85% of a typical home's energy.

There are, however, refrigerators and freezers designed for solar homes that consume 20% of a conventional model's energy. They are more expensive, but save several times their cost in electrical savings over their usable lifetime. Propane heating used to be a cost-effective way of avoiding the natural gas grid, but propane prices have risen nearly 50% over the last year, and its cost-effectiveness has now been virtually eliminated. Our recommendation is to use passive solar collectors for preliminary water and air heating and then either a supplemental wood bunting outdoor furnace ... or propane as a last resort.


Dankoff Solar Products pioneered low-cost solar water pumping starting in 1983. More than 10,000 Dankoff pumps have been installed worldwide and are especially favored by remote-site home owners, ranchers, state and nation forest and park authorities, and overseas and services. Dankoff offers the world's largest variety of solar pumps, to meet a wide range of needs.

A Dankoff pump typically uses half as much electric power as competitors' models. It also uses DC power instead of conventional AC. This allows the pump to run directly from a solar power system in the simplest and least expensive way. A conventional pump will require a solar power system that is twice the size and cost, so a Dankoff pump can save you thousands of dollars.

Their pump systems (pump + power system) range in cost from $500 to $8,000, depending on lift, pressure and flow requirements. They are cheaper than windmills, and often cost little more than a generator system, with less maintenance and no fuel costs, noise or pollution. Dankoff pumps can work with every type of independent power system, including hydro, wind or solar (photovoltaic), or in combination with a generator or grid power.


Trace Engineering[TM] recently merged with several other companies to become Xantrex Technologies, Inc. Xantrex has a long history of pioneering, designing and manufacturing equipment which enables the use of renewable energy.

Inverters made it possible for "regular" homes to be powered by DC sources such as solar electricity, small wind turbines and microhydro systems. Xantrex was the first to produce a multipurpose inverter that could operate bidirectionally and sell excess renewable power to the utility grid as well as serve as a power security device when grid failures occur.

Sun Tie

The Trace[TM] brand Sun Tie, manufactured by Xantrex, is at the front of a new market emerging in North America which converts solar power directly into utility power without the use of batteries.

ST is a very simple-to-install machine; it is basically a plug-and-play system, and all necessary components (except the PV array) are included in a single UL listed product. A typical installation can usually be completed in less than a day.

The Sun Tie offers homeowners key benefits

* Reduced electricity bills monthly--Every kW produced by the PV is a kW not bought from the utility.

* Secure future electric pricing--PV systems have at least a 20-year design life. The price of power from the array and the Sun Tie will not vary over the entire design life of the product.

* Environmentally friendly power is easy to produce, and there is no mystery as to where it comes from. Many utilities offer "green power" from far away. The homeowner now has the opportunity to see exactly where the power is coming from and to own the means of production.

* Many state governments are offering incentives to bring new sources of renewable energy online, owners of PV arrays and Sun Ties can use these incentives to lower the costs of their systems.

* Distributed generation--many small generating sites distributed across a grid--means that utility companies can avoid investing in new large-scale, environmentally harmful new power projects. This is good for the planet and the ratepayer. Large-scale utility investments will otherwise translate into even higher power prices.

* Distributed generation also allows ordinary Americans to be part of the solution rather than sitting on the sidelines. People taking committed individual action such as installing a PV array and Sun Tie along with energy saving devices such as Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb's programmable thermostats, and efficient electric motors can make a huge difference in today's energy crisis.

* Available in four sizes to fit your needs: 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5 KVA capacity.

A Home Utility

Solar panels often produce more electricity than your home can use, and the excess can be stored in batteries and for a time, storing excess power in batteries was the only choice. Now there is another option. In the last few years, 30 states in the U.S. have made it possible to do something else with excess power created by solar energy. In these areas, if you make more electricity than you use, the excess can be sent into the power lines (this is known as net metering). You can make a positive contribution to the environment and save on your power bills as well.


Given the rising coats of electricity due to deregulation of the electric utility companies and intensive labor costs involved with bringing electric power to remote locations, solar electricity is moving into the new millennium as a preferred alternative to traditional generation methods. Sunelco has been designing, selling and installing alternative elect, dc systems for more than 15 years and are proud to be a part of an industry that will provide clean, low-coat and reliable electric power for millions of people worldwide in the future.

Many of their customers are remote home or homestead owners who have decided to opt for solar electricity rather than bring in costly overhead or buried power lines from the utility company (either of which will cost tens of thousands of dollars for even a half-mile extension!). Others are urban and suburban homeowners who prefer to make their own power rather than rely on power generated by coal, oil or nuclear-fired power plants. Still others want to reduce their power bills while supplying a part of their home's power requirements from sunshine.

Sunelco publishes the Sunelco Planning Guide and Product Catalog which is geared toward the prospective alternative energy user. It leads the reader through the considerations necessary before attempting a project of this nature. It also provides a complete listing of the components required, tips on basic installation and prices, as well as helpful data and appendixes of great value to the person wishing to do it themselves.

In addition to providing written information, Sunelco's staff of engineers and technicians are available to discuss your needs, help you in sizing an appropriate system and offer assistance at the time of installation with wiring diagrams, answers to electrical code dilemmas as well as conservation guides to help you switch seamlessly from utility power to the brave and independent now world of renewables,

Part of their philosophy is that by taking care of each customer's individual needs they'll have happier customers, more referrals and fewer returns--and the environment will be better for having them around.



Siemens Solar has shipped solar cells and solar modules with a cumulative peak power of 200 megawatts, making it the number-one solar manufacturing company in the world. Siemens Solar has been producing solar cells and solar modules for more than 20 years, reaching the 100-megawatt milestone in 1996 and has been able to double this figure in just four years.

The company's solar cells, which convert sunlight directly into electrical current, are used in a vast range of application areas and different sizes of installation around the world, from supplying power to garden lighting, through operation of water pumps for drinking water, right up to grid-connected photovoltaic power stations.

Examples of power stations are the Mont Soleil project in Switzerland and Kerman in California, each with an output of 500 kilowatts, and the one-megawatt installation at the New Munich Trade Fair Center. With a module surface area of around 7,800 square meters, this is the largest rooftop solar power plant in the world. The cumulative figure for solar cells and modules supplied to date by Siemens Solar is equivalent to 200 times the output of this reference installation. Approximately 200 megawatts would be sufficient to supply light, water and refrigerated vaccines to more than 10 million people in remote off-grid areas of developing countries.

Siemens Solar Industries L.P. also announced recently that they have received approval of its earthsafe[TM] solar electric kits for homes from the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC). Included in the kits are Siemens Solar 25-year warranty modules, mounting kit, inverter and interconnects. Applications for earthsafe[TM] systems are homes, schools and commercial buildings. They convert sunlight into electricity, providing green power and reducing the peak demands on utilities while reducing the monthly power bill of the owner. The earthsafe[TM] systems are the first UL-listed systems to receive this approval.

Florida is the first state to require approval of PV systems by a state agency. Under the System Design Review and Approval requirements of the Florida Buildings Program, solar modules are evaluated by the FSEC to ensure that the quality, safety and code compliance for system designs have been met. The approval process helps ensure reliability and customer satisfaction with solar installations, and is required for utilities and other program partners before they can receive State of Florida buy-down funds for PV installations.

"Winning FSEC approval for earthsafe[TM] kits helps those in the building industry because it assures them of a preapproved PV system when going before inspectors and utilities," notes Arthur Rudin, Manager of Training and Technical Services. "This ultimately helps protect both the contractor and the customer."


The Off-grid Remote Home

An independent natural power system typically produces just 10 to 25% of the electricity consumed by a utility powered American home. That is about 1 to 5 or at most 10 kilowatt hours of electricity on a sunny day.

Rather than major lifestyle changes, Backwoods Solar keeps most advantages electricity offers while consuming only a small percentage of the powers others use. Here's how:

1. Design whole house (water, heat, power) for low energy use.

2. Carefully select very special low-energy lights and appliances.

3. Eliminate energy waste by appliances or by human carelessness.

After meeting those three measures, a practical and affordable solar electric system (or wind, microhydro or a combination of the two) can provide electricity for your home.

Just five kilowatt hours per day runs both their Backwoods Solar business and their home.

What Will It Cost?

A rural solar electric home can be set up anywhere from $2,500 to $28,000. Most often it comes between $4,500 and $15,000 complete. The cost varies with amount of power needed, and also with the average daily sunshine hours for your location and climate. Windmill generators can be used together with solar to generate power in more varieties of weather. On a site with windspeed measured and confirmed, wind generation used along with solar will reduce the total cost of the power system.

Backwoods Solar can help you choose and estimate the cost of the right equipment if you let them know how many people are in the house, something of their lifestyles, the appliances, whether there is a home business activity, and anything else that would affect power usage. They pride themselves on giving you the best equipment, the most cost-efficient installation, and the best and most informative follow-up care in the business.


As energy prices are skyrocketing and global warming increases, people are looking for more ways to become energy self-sufficient. Through the use of "alternative energy" products such as photovoltaic (solar), wind and water, people can achieve this independence., formerly Alternative Energy Engineering, has not only installed some of the largest commercial photovoltaic systems in the United States, but has been providing alternative power systems to individuals for mere than 20 years. A great number of their staff has been living off-grid for over twenty years, With this expertise, they can help you design or troubleshoot a PV, wind or hydro pumping or electrical system so that you can become energy self-sufficient. Free technical assistance, shopping online, a 124-page design catalog, toll-free ordering and huge on-hand inventory are a few of the reasons why is number one. is also an authorized Trace repair center. carries a complete selection of:

* Inverters

* PV modules

* Fans

* Hydrogenerators

* Wind generators

* Water pumps

* Regulators

* Batteries

* Appliances

* Lights

* Gift items


Intermountain Solar Technologies specializes in making independent power generation easy for anyone to use. Their qualified technical staff has assisted thousands of people with the design and installation of clean, quiet and reliable renewable energy systems. Their exclusive pre-engineered power systems include virtually everything you need for a successful installation. From small portable power systems for recreational or backup use to larger turnkey stand-alone power systems, they have the power solution for you.

They also offer free advanced technical support to any of their customers. Their goal is to assist customers not only with design and component selection, but they also want to assist with the successful installation and user education of their power systems.

As one of the few independently owned renewable energy distributors left, they recognize the importance of offering their customers more than just a pile of components. They want each and every application they assist in to offer years of reliable power. They are setting the standard in service for independent energy providers. That is why their product line features only the finest offered in the renewable energy industry. They have gone to great lengths to ensure that their customers have access to the best the world has to offer for clean energy solutions. Trace, Heart Interface, BP Solar, Solarex, Astro Power, Siemens, Southwest Windpower, Shurflo, Sunrise and Zomeworks are just a few of the leading manufacturers they represent.

Their Web site ( has schematics and component descriptions of several renewable power systems for home or business, starting with 500-watt minisystems and going all the way to their biggest do-it-yourself 30,000-watt power system. The largest, turnkey, stand-alone systems will handle all of your home or business electrical needs, including 120 or 240 VAC well pumps and heavy-draw appliances. The two 5,500-watt included inverters are stacked to provide 11kw of continuous power. Add wind options to a system and on days with winds at 25 mph, the AIR 403 turbine is capable of producing more than 7,000 watts on its own!

They have also recently completed their new Solar Resource Guide to help educate you about the many applications for renewable energy products. This new book is being provided as a tool to help you in selecting the highest quality components for your specific application.

Intermountain Solar Technologies recognizes that without the proper support many people who purchase these technical products will be left scratching their heads. They take great pride in the level of service their customers have grown to expect.

Their system design team has been published in several nationally recognized homesteading publications with feature articles about various successful renewable energy applications.

If you're working on a battery maintenance system for an RV or a large communication repeater site, they have the technical expertise to help you.

If you are just considering a renewable energy system for future use, give them a call and they'll be glad to discuss the viability and cost effectiveness of dozens of different power applications.


With 21 years in the solar energy field, Sierra Solar Systems offers unlimited expertise and experience in the sale and design of solar systems. They are an independently owned and operated company that specializes in photovoltaic system design, and they design complete systems as well as sell a variety of individual products. In their large, detailed catalog--available to you at no cost and published twice a year--as well as in their extensive Online Catalog (at, you will find an impressive selection of products available for purchase, including photovoltaics, wind power, hydropower, batteries, inverters, DC pumps, energy efficient lighting, solar hot water, propane refrigerators, generators, composting toilets, room heaters and books.

Sierra Solar Systems also provides you with a helpful, knowledgeable staff to assist you in the sale or design of your solar system. Their staff has extensive experience with both on- and off-grid systems, and most of their employees live in PV-powered homes. They offer a toll-free installation hotline, and local installation is available to you by a licensed electrical contractor. They have a full-time engineer and a technician who are always on duty to answer your technical questions.

Sierra Solar Systems is among the leaders in number of net metering connections. They can help you to sell your power back to your company. They have facilitated more than $50,000 worth of California State rebates to their customers. And you are not alone in choosing Sierra Solar Systems to provide you with solar energy: though most of their customers are homeowners, they have also worked with the U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Transportation, Alabama Department of Transportation, Disney World, numerous universities, and many small businesses, ranches, and farms.

If you are looking to bring solar energy into your home or business, Sierra Solar systems can provide you with the products, experience and support you need.
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Publication:Mother Earth News
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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