Solar power: worth the consideration

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In the aftermath of recent power outages in the upper Pontiac, it seems timely to examine how alternative energy sources could alleviate some of the drastic inconveniences citizens suffered. We’ve been encouraged to switch to all-electric households, by the abundant low-cost hydroelectric power we enjoy in Quebec (most of the time).

My late wife, Marilee DeLombard was an early adopter of solar power at her self-built home in Thorne, several kilometres away from the nearest hydro line. Her brother and father were both electrical engineers with NASA, and her brother was involved in a project to test the limits of solar power. They had early solar panels (all space missions are powered by solar voltaic panels and have been since the 60s.) They had tortured the solar panels, and then experimented with field repairs. When they finished the testing, they tossed the used panels into the trash. My brother-in-law was not one to let such a treasure go to waste, so he retrieved them, and brought them to his sister. As a result, five of these panels would run a radio/cassette player through the day, and charge batteries so some electric lighting and a 13″ b/w television could be used in the evening.

Solar panels have come a long, long way since those days. As we later upgraded piece-by-piece, each solar panel we bought was larger, less expensive and more powerful than the last. About ten years ago, the cost of new panels fell below $1 per watt, and they continue to become lighter and more cost efficient each year.

The peripheral equipment i.e., charge controllers and batteries, also continue to evolve, but only recently have the batteries caught up in development, so many people are now using lithium-ion batteries instead of the old standby lead/acid batteries.

So how does this relate to a modern household, with its electric heat and our habit of being constantly online? Well, solar voltaic systems are not likely to heat your home in a winter outage, but a small system could keep some lights and radio or internet going. It’s bad enough to be cold, but to be cold and dark and out of touch with the outside world is worse. During the ice storm of 1997, we were snowbound for seven days.

However, we had lights and radio (internet was in its infancy in those days, and not available in rural Pontiac). Since we were full-time off the grid, the house was heated entirely by wood, so freezing was not an issue. But after seven days, we ran out of gasoline for the generator, so we ran out of water. Any appliance that has a large motor or heating mechanism is too much draw for a small solar power system. I had to make the laborious trudge with a toboggan and gas can of 5 kilometres to the nearest house where the road had been cleared.

Recently, several households have been established along Mountain Road, and since there is no hydro line, they have solar power systems. This is the strong point of solar power. Rather than centralized solar power farms, its strength is in the adaptability to small remote installations. Sure, it will be costly and inconvenient to install a solar power backup system, but how does that inconvenience compare to what has just been endured, when households were cold, dark and incommunicado?

Robert Wills
Shawville and Thorne