Have you ever wanted to run a utility company? No? Me neither, but in order to live out here (or in any other, similar, "extreme rural" location) with any of the modern conveniences most of us have grown accustomed to (like lighting, decent refrigeration and the like) you might just have to start your own Alternative Energy Small Utility.
Alternative energy is generally considered to be any source of power- heat- or light-producing energy used in the normal course of going about life that is not delivered in a neat package via cable or pipe from your local utility provider. It can include wood, geothermal, water, wind, methane, passive solar and PV (photo voltaic) solar among many others.
The term "Alternative Energy" is a bit misleading in our case. For us to live here, there were no alternatives but to go "alternative". To survive with any style here we have to be our own electric power company, and like many others in rural situations be our own water company, and our own sanitation department...
2000 - 2004 - 2005 - 2007 - 2008 - 2008(again) - 2009 - 2010 - 2011 - 2013 - 2014 - 2014(again) - 2015
Generating the Power for BMR
Grid power (that lovely stuff that comes in a seemingly endless, subsidized, stream down the wires from, well... wherever) is miles and miles from the Ranch. Don't get me wrong. While there is a certain bold freedom to being un-tethered from The Grid, I'm basically a pragmatic. If The Grid were magically extended to our property line tomorrow I'd likely be signing up for their power the next day (though I'd certainly keep producing as much power as I was able too and sell it back to them when possible). That, however, is not the case, nor is it likely to be for the foreseeable future. If we want to live in the 21st century (and what fun would it be not to?) we have to generate our own electricity.
PV Solar for Power
When we began looking for our "perfect property" we realized that many of the criteria that would make it perfect for us in so many ways would also make it unlikely to have access to grid power so... years ago we began to learn a little about alternative sources. It quickly became apparent that, in Arizona, photo-voltaic (PV) solar power was an obvious solution.
PV solar (as opposed to passive solar) is the process by which the sun's radiation is converted (by solar panels) into direct current (DC) electrical energy. For our needs it was clear that we would need storage capacity for the energy (a battery bank) and a way to convert the DC current to normal AC household current (an inverter). These three components, the panels, the batteries and the inverter are the basis of our system
Another power opportunity in our locale is the wind. Even after just a few months here we realized that there was a huge potential power source we had left untapped. Wind power has come a long way from the hay days of those picturesque mechanical power windmills which can still be seen dotting the landscape here (we have a non-functional one near the well we keep for esthetic reasons but with hopes of refurbishing it back onto productive service at some point in the future). Many modern wind generators incorporate ultra-quite turbines which directly generate electrical power. We eventually added to our power plant a 900 watt wind turbine installed on a 50' tower and are now thoroughly enjoying the benefits of being able to generate power 24 hours a day.
There are times, even here in AZ, when the sun doesn't shine, and the wind doesn't blow, or when we have extra heavy power requirements. For these times we needed a back-up generator which we eventually added in to the system. Our propane gas powered generator also is used for the periodic "equalization" of the batteries, a process of over-charging them to balance and refresh their electrolytes. We also use a large (9kW) portable gasoline generator for our well pumping and for various shop and field power requirements (like welding or power tool work out at the barn).
2000 - 2004 - 2005 - 2007 - 2008 - 2008(again) - 2009 - 2010 - 2011 - 2013 - 2014 - 2014(again) - 2015
Last fall we added 4275 watts of solar panels in preparation for getting a new commercial refrigerator. In January our new refrigeration unit showed up. Shopping for it had been tough because what we wanted was pretty far outside of our budget. But we shopped around and found the unit that we liked the most at about half of the price as it listed for. Then it went on sale and we also had a coupon. The price was coming down to where we could justify it!
When it arrived here by freight we checked it over and found that it had a dent in a door. The $1700 in damage(!) was covered by the freight company and we opted to keep the money instead of replacing the damage since it was just cosmetic. Total cost to us for a double door stainless steel commercial refrigerator: just over $1000. That’s a nice savings over the Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price of $5735!
Even with running the new refrigeration, our expanded solar arrays are mostly keeping up with our electrical consumption. Our backup generator has only run a few times since last fall (other than when we use it for pasteurizing milk for the dairy). Usually it would be running almost every day during our hot, hazy summer – and that is before adding the new frig. We expect to recoup our expenses for adding extra panels in less than 2 years due to the savings of not running the big diesel generator. And the quality of life is SO much better – not having to listen to the noisy generator or worry much about keeping it fueled so often.
This year we started making aged cheeses as well as our fresh cheeses. But aged cheeses require cool temperatures for several months in order to mature correctly. That would mean getting a new, double door refrigeration unit. And that would mean higher electric usage, which would mean needing more solar panels. We’ve been pinching pennies since putting in the new well and battery bank earlier this year, so it didn’t seem like we could swing this project. But thanks to a $5000 grant from Bon Appetite we have now started the work. We will increase our solar generating capacity from 2720 watts to almost 7000 watts! That will be quite something. David says that we won’t be Off Grid anymore – we will BE The Grid.
Our original panels cost $4.06 per watt back in 2000. These new panels cost $0.78 per watt. Gotta love it! Total cost of adding 4275 watts of panels, plus installation: Just over $6600 - and we still need to buy the new refrigeration unit! 2014 has been an exceptionally expensive year, but the improvements have put us in good shape for years to come.
The five new ground mount arrays sit in front of our 4 older pole mount arrays
It didn't take long this year to break the bank with our "free utilities". Last December we noticed that our overflow pond at the well wasn’t filling. A check inside the water storage tank showed that it was only half full of water. We thought this indicated that our solar well pump wasn’t working. But when we ran the gas powered electric well pump we still didn’t get any water. Hmmmm, had our well gone dry? We’ve been saving up for putting in a second well, supposedly as a backup, so we decided to go ahead with that project. After talking to several well drillers we chose Willis Drilling in Snowflake.
The good folks at Willis did a great job of putting in the new well (the work in progress is pictured on the left). They even used what is called a “pitless adapter” which keeps the water below the frost line until it fills the storage tank. That means no water pipes to worry about freezing in the winter!
Once the new well was online, we decided to have Willis pull up the old well pumps to see what went wrong. Surprisingly, both pumps (the solar and the gas pumps) worked great. The problem was a check valve that wasn’t doing its job, it was letting the water drain back into the well instead of pumping out into the storage tank. We could have just replaced that $10 part and reset the pumps, but we decided that since Willis had done such a great job on the new well, we’d have them case this one to help keep the sand from destroying the pump and piping. Due to the small bore of the well, we had to go with 4 inch casing which would only allow one pump to be set. We decided on using the solar pump and storing the gas pump in the barn in case we ever need it. We had them use a pitless adapter so now we don’t have to worry about the water lines freezing, and it also looks much better (see picture on the right - honest, it's MUCH neater than it was).
So now we have two functioning wells – we love redundancy out here. But it did set us back over $22,000. It’s a good thing that we’ve been saving for that!
In February our battery bank decided it was done working. Not a lot of notice was given on that. Suddenly we were using the generator almost constantly to keep the ranch running. David tracked down some new batteries in Phoenix and made a run down there to get them. Total cost of the batteries and installation: $6400.
2013:Mostly the sun and the wind supply our electrical power but for cheese making and on hot, cloudy days we rely on our big diesel generator. Things were going very well with our electrical system throughout all of last year and into 2013. But in June the computer UPS's started to complain that the power wasn't good when the generator was running. We couldn't find a problem. But on a rainy Sunday in July, on our 31st wedding anniversary, the genset (the electricity generating end of our big diesel generator) gave out with plenty of sparks, smoke, and noise.
Instead of drinking champagne that evening, we were out in the drenching monsoon rain trying to get our backup gas generator moved into position. Once there, we tried starting it. It refused, so we dragged out our backup-BACKUP gas generator. It also wasn't interested in working. We learned an important lesson during the week about the need to run gas engines periodically to keep the gas from lacquering up the carburetor. Luckily the good guys at Alvarez in Snowflake were able to get one gas unit running the next day and we were able to use it to power all systems with the exception of our pasteurizer that we use each day to make cheese.
David was also able to track down a new genset unit in Phoenix and he made the long trip to pick it up. By Saturday, we had the new unit installed and working! We thank Matt of Allied Off Grid Solutions, Jose Alvarez, and the guys from Remote Living for coming to our aid and getting us back up and running. Pictured to the left is the new genset - it's the cylindrical thing with the square box on top. It weighs over 300 pounds and we had to use the tractor to move it into place. Our computer UPS's are much happier now with the new system.
New Year's Day we woke up to a temperature of minus 10! We had a full week of severely low temps. Our well head froze and damaged our wonderful solar well pump. We ended up hauling water from 10 miles away every day for several weeks in order to provide for over 100 animals that depend on us. It was grueling work in very cold weather. We had to have a contractor come out and pull our pump out and replace it. We also had him set up a duel system with our old generator powered (A/C) pump in-line with the solar pump. This should provide us with a back-up in case one of the pumps breaks down again. Total cost: $4600
The new inverter that we had installed in 2008 really was a dud and we had the old inverter rebuilt and installed a month after trying the "new and improved" one. So we did end up getting a few more years production out of our original inverter. However by the end of 2010 we felt that we were pushing our luck. Because of our heavy electrical demands due to our cheese dairy, we decided to go with a duel inverter system by Outback. The two inverters help even-out the power when there is a surge. This means that we can actually run our milking machine without running the generator. The duel system even allows for a faster charge to the batteries when the diesel generator is running. That should save on some diesel! Final cost: $6000
We decided to go solar with our water pumping this year. We pulled the old well pump out and replaced it with a Grundfos 6 SQF-2 pump that can run on AC or DC. We added 600 watts of solar panels so that whenever the sun shines our water tank fills. It is a very nice addition to the ranch. Final cost approx. $7000.
Our wind generator once again blew it's bearings and was hauled in for repair. It took over two months to get it back. Repair costs were about $800. If (when) the wind generator breaks again we will have to replace it with a newer version since the company no longer carries parts for this one.
The fan on our inverter stopped working awhile ago and we've rigged an external fan to blow on the heat sink to keep it cool. Otherwise it overheats and turns all the power off to the ranch. Now the inverter is refusing to consistently accept power from the generator. We suspect the circuit board is going out and since we can't be without a reliable inverter we will have a new one installed next week. Price tag $3000. It's going to be an expensive year keeping up with our "free power"! (See 2010 entry above - this new inverter didn't work well so the company took it back and didn't charge us for it. We had our old inverter rebuilt and installed for just a couple hundred dollars.)
Our battery bank had an estimated life of 5-7 years. Well, it's been 7 1/2 years now and the batteries are feeling their age. We replaced the 40 Trojan T-105's with 24 larger batteries. Lead had just hit an all time high on the commodities market and we paid $7000 for our new battery bank. While the guys from Val-U Solar where out installing the new batteries, they also checked our panels. It was quite a surprise to find out that over half of our panels were not producing power and many more were producing less then they were designed to. Since they were still under warranty the panels were replaced by the company.
Live and learn. The Hardy Diesel generator was a real bear to keep working. It constantly needed tinkering with, blew lots of oil, and was just as temperamental as the old LPG generator. In the spring of this year it finally, simply, blew up. It threw a rod through the housing and, so, finished it's lackluster career at the ranch. It was a tough couple weeks waiting for a replacement since we need a big generator to run our pasteurizer for making cheese. But we dragged over the big gas generator from the well and used it until the new $8,000 22k Perkins diesel generator arrived. Despite the wind and snow of a freak May blizzard we were able to install the newest generator and it is working much better than the old ones ever did.
In June our wind generator started making grinding noises and in July it gave up entirely. We had it taken down and sent in for repairs. It was reinstalled in August and seems to be working fine now. The repairs and installation were about $500.
Having determined that the 10 kW Generac LPG back-up generator we'd been using almost since we installed the whole power system was simply too unreliable and temperamental for our dairy needs, we purchased and installed a new Hardy Diesel 15kW unit. After some initial tweaking it is running well and is a welcomed relief from the Generac. Our plan is to explore selling the Generac and if that doesn't pan out we will install it at the shop/machine barn for easy, on-demand power over there.
- Panels: 2560 watts of 48 volt DC power provided by 32, 80 watt Kyocera modules - $10,400
- Racks: 4, 8-module manually adjustable racks - $5450
- Inverter: Trace SW4048 115 volt (gang-able to 240 volt) power panel with 4000 watt, 48 volt pure sine inverter, C-40 charge controller and assorted disconnects, beakers and junction boxes, and remote TriMetric battery condition read-out console at the house - $3700
- Batteries: a bank of 40, Trojan T-105, 220 amp-hour 6 volt lead-acid batteries arranged in 5 strings of 8 with Water Miser safety vent caps all around - $3600
- Wind Generator: 900 watt Whisper H40 - $1330
- Tower: 50' tri-pole tower with guy wires - $1025
- Back-up Generator: A 10,000 watt LP gas powered, air-cooled Generac Guardian with complete remote auto start functions - $3500
The Price Tag of our intitial set up in the Year 2000
The total cost of this system (so far), including misc. little this-and-thats and installation is right about at $30,000. Kind-of makes those $100 monthly electric bills we used to complain about not seem so bad after all!
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