Progress Energy may be giving me another encouragement to move Off Grid

Today I got a letter in the mail from Progress Energy about their Energy Wise program where homeowners can voluntarily allow them to install equipment which would allow them to switch off some of our appliances (air conditioning/heater/water heater) during peak demand times. In exchange for this they are offering up to $75 yearly credit. The peak demand times vary by the appliance (heater/water heater was 6AM-9AM and a stretch in the evening 5PM-9PM I think) (air conditioning was about 1pm-6pm) Now, they say in the notice that it’s entirely voluntary and it would be switched off for 15 minutes at a time for no more than 4 hours. (This last part was not written clearly, does that mean no consecutive blocks of 15 minutes and the total would be no more than 4 hours, or is it possible that it could be consecutive blocks up to 4 hours(?)) I’m all for saving power. I’ve got a kill-a-watt meter and from time to time audit things around the house. We’ve tried to resist going to the air conditioning this year and last…. unplug the water heater when we’re away for long enough and really try to save where we can.

But, I don’t want to proverbially turn the keys over to the power company to switch things off when they think demand is too high. I’m sorry, that’s not their business. Their business is supply, I’ll take care of controlling my demand and if someone else doesn’t, then they’ll just have a high bill to pay won’t they?

Now, like I said, this is voluntary (for now) and there are limits on the peak hours they’ve defined. (And you can pick 2 calendar dates to opt out of the switching off and weekends aren’t covered….) I imagine the terms could easily change (and continued use means you agree to the changes just like with everything else these days.)

It kind of reminds me when Progress Energy wrote to us and gave us this great offer…. Our power bill ranged at that time from around 60 a month to 90 a month depending on the season and weather when we received an offer from them to never have a surprise in our power bill again by prorating our power bill we could pay the same amount every month. Their magic number that they had calculated for us was $92 a month for 12 months and then if it turned out our usage was different we could get an adjusted rate for the next 12 months (up or down). What was amazing to me is that their total was just a shade larger than our largest bill in the last 12 months had been….. nice racket in the power business isn’t it?

Well…. this has all had me thinking about the incentives to really go off grid. Who knows, at some point power companies may not make such things as shutting off your appliances in peak periods an option. It may sometime become a mandatory agreement. With all the power options these days for alternative energy, solar panels, geothermal heating, some people can take advantage of wind or microhydro power as well… it just makes me think that the massive power grids days may be numbered. I’d like to look at all the tax incentives and see if there’s any difference in claiming them if you’re connected to the grid or not, but the coming years may see an explosion in off-grid power installs!

Along these lines I saw that researchers at UC-Berkley I believe had come up with a material that could be as much as 10x cheaper than silicon for solarvoltaic panels. There are now several companies that are doing similar, cheaper approaches to photovoltaics I’m REALLY looking forward to seeing more of these become publicly available. (So far, one company I know of is/was under military contract and their products were not available for sale to the public.)

Oh… one other thought on progress energy’s energy wise program…. according to their Florida website they say most people that have joined say that they don’t even notice when the interruptions are. Personally…. I notice that “most people” aren’t home much during the day/evening…. I wonder if they polled people that work at/from home?

DIY Vertical Axis Wind Turbine

This is a neat project. A site called hackaday posted this project. It’s essentially a homemade wind generator (generates electricity from wind.) It’s not one of those large windmill style turbines that you might have seen. This is a vertical design. They’ve sliced pvc pipe lengthwise in half to catch the wind. One advantage of a design like this is that it would work with wind from ANY direction. Their design drives a small DC motor. (DC motors can be used two directions…. hook up a current and get motion or supply motion and get current…)

This is one project that I may put on my to do list. It looks like it could be enough to keep a few batteries charged at least. I haven’t found an estimate of how much wind it would take to turn it. (That MAY be the real catch.)

Insulating around Power Outlets

I’ve been on my own personal campaign to tighten up air leakage around our house. Busy caulking windows and trying to find ways to blunt that cool air from getting in and the warm air from getting out.

This evening I was thinking about the power outlets. I’ve noticed that some of our outlets on the exterior walls are a bit drafty. Since you want to be careful around an electrical outlet I’ve been wondering about safe ways to insulate around the outlets. Fortunately I’ve found some very good tutorials on what to look for and how to do it.

Fortunately, as you can see from these instructions it is both cheap and really easy to do this. They make foam insulators that are sized to wall outlets with punches for either a light switch opening or outlet openings.

First you should cut off power to the outlet at your fuse or breaker box. Please do this, you never know when the screwdriver may slip and make things interesting in “short” order!

Then it’s as simple as taking the outlet cover off, pushing out the precut opening in the foam insert. Place it carefully to line up with the outlets and replace the outlet cover. Then you should be able to switch the power back on to the outlet and you’ll have a tighter insulated house!

Worlds Largest Solar Heating and Cooling System to be Installed in Fletcher, NC

I saw this on the news last night, it looks like Fletcher, North Carolina is going to be home to the worlds largest solar heating and cooling system. A company called Vanir Solar Construction is building the system. They were previously known as Appalachian Solar Energy before being bought by the Vanir Solar Construction company. The second largest system is installed in the Olympic Village in Beijing China.

Appalachian Energy started out in 2003 and operates a small hydroelectric dam in Madison County which powers around 600 homes. As I understand this solar install will be in the Fletcher Business Park.

The BoGo light

I thought this was an interesting flashlight – basically it’s designed to be a utility light for those places that don’t ordinarily have an abundance of lighting choices, but it looks like it would make a great emergency, utility light here as well. The idea is that it’s solar chargable, has LED lights for the lighting source, can run in low/medium/high beam mode. When you buy one, they give one through their affiliate organizations to places that need them. The batteries charge in 8-10 hours of full sun, there’s an auto switch off when the batteries are almost flat, niteglow strip to find it easily in the dark, there is a mechanism to switch it off in sunlight (meaning that they could be used as a trail or path light as well.

All in all, it looks rugged, has a carabineer clip and looks like a really well designed product.

Bloom Energy – the Bloom Box Energy Server

Alternative Energy is a booming area right now, there is a great deal of interest in new and different ways to provide energy. Really, there should be. It’s nothing less than a national security issue when we have so much of our energy needs imported from overseas. Imported from places that don’t have our best interests at heart. That’s why a new launch of something like Bloom Energy’s new fuel cell approach get’s so much buzz. This week they introduced us to the concept of the energy server. Which is, I think a clever way to market their new offering.

Bloom Energy had been teasing the world with a countdown to the launch of their new product. The bloom box, or bloom energy server takes up about the size of a parking space and can generate 100kW of power. Day and night. It’s a fuel cell and if you need more capacity you simply add another unit, or another or another. 100kW they describe as enough power to supply about 100 houses or a small office building. Of course, your coverage will vary depending on actual consumption.

It’s not a cheap box mind you, but the companies that have tried out the units they claim to be saving on their power costs. Companies like Ebay, Google, Coca-Cola, Fedex are among those that have been trying out the device. Google I would imagine (along with any other companies needing data center space) has more of a reason to look for cheap electricity. Power costs are high when you run a datacenter of hundreds of computers. Finding a cheaper way to power them will translate into more money for companies like Google.

What’s further exciting is the promise that within a few years, they will have a device about the size of a brick that you could purchase for what they estimate will be around $3000 that would be enough to power the average house. Again, your mileage will vary. Some houses consume more electricity, some less. Still, the promising of combining multiple units means that you have flexibility to scale up your “energy servers”.

In some ways this could make it more possible to truly be off grid, although I think the availability of the grid is probably an important thing. This winter we lost power to a large snowstorm and were without power about 3-4 days. Heat is our main problem with winter power outages because we need electricity for most of our heating options. A generator is relatively cheap, but impractical to keep running for the amount of time that we need heat. Devices like this could mean that we would never notice an outage from a major storm.

There are lots of other reasons to envision keeping the grid even if more and more houses are their own energy production plants. There will always be times that you will use a bit more power than you expect and for those times you can draw power back from the grid. For that matter, there are also times that you use less power and THAT can be SOLD back to the power company. For our national security I see many advantages to a more diversified power generation structure like these devices could produce.

You should realize though that these energy servers do consume something to create energy. Biofuel is possible, but the more likely fuel at the present is Natural Gas. These fuels will combine with oxygen within the fuel cell to generate electricity. The fuel cell itself is made from one of the more abundant substances you could think of…. sand.