SOLAR IN THE CITY
Living off the grid
April 14, 2017
Aztec resident and San Juan College Physics Professor, Carl Bickford, has been taking full advantage of our abundant New Mexico sunshine since 2004. By using photovoltaic solar panels and requisite components, closely watching the weather and being highly-aware of energy consumption, Bickford relishes the feeling of generating his own electricity. Connected by meter to the Aztec Electric Department in order recharge his system's batteries when necessary, he operates virtually off the grid.
Carl came to this area in 1994 to teach engineering classes at San Juan College in Farmington. "That time period saw a pretty rapid increase in the solar industry, but there weren't that many programs around the country that were training people at the installer level, so I talked to a few people in the industry, like the editor of Home Power Magazine, and they were very encouraging and gave us free advertising for a bunch of years so we started a program. We defined a two-year degree or a one-year certificate and trained people in both on and off-grid solar electric, and also, in solar heating system design," Carl recounted.
Approximately 200 students went through the Renewable Energy Program through the years, and most of the graduates found employment in the industry. "They weren't going to find it here, of course, so they were going to leave the area, and almost all of them did. A couple of my students went on to found 'Positive Energy' in Santa Fe, which has now expanded to one of the larger install businesses in the state," Bickford declared. He feels a real sense of satisfaction about the fact that "some have gone on to be very successful and gone into upper-level management in small companies all over the place."
Bickford was the coordinator and sole instructor in the program for the first four to five years until it became necessary to bring in Tom Munson to help with the heavy load of classes. Asked about the demise of the program in the Spring of 2014, Bickford said, "Two factors; we were struggling with enrollment and when we started out we were the only two-year program in the country." With increasing interest in renewable energy, San Juan College had to compete with numerous other programs in the state. The other factor was that a newly-hired SJC administrator took a "very hard line on programs with low enrollment."
Regarding the question of being off-grid, Carl said, "I am off the grid. I have battery storage at the house. I have chosen to keep a meter connection to the City of Aztec. There are a couple of reasons for that. One, if you pull a meter completely and later on you want to reconnect to the grid, that can trigger a whole electrical inspection of the house. And Aztec so far is pretty friendly just to keep the meter. Occasionally if the weather is bad enough, I will charge the batteries from the grid."
Clarifying the issue of being "off-grid," Bickford explained, "even though I have a city meter on the property, it is phsically disconnected from my electrical system by a circuit breaker. If I need to charge the batteries because of bad weather, I have to turn on the breaker and buy energy from the city. All the components in my system are designed for off-grid operation. All off-grid systems require some kind of back-up energy. Usually that's a generator, but in my case I use the local grid as a back-up, only because it is inexpensive and quiet. I'm essentially a regular customer that just happens not to use much annual energy. I have been able to go a whole calendar year without using the grid at all for charging. This winter was not very conducive to that however."
Bickford said the components in an off-grid system are "solar electric panels that send energy to a charge controller that monitors the batteries and insures that they don't get overcharged. From the batteries you have an inverter which converts energy from DC to AC. AC energy is exactly the same as what utility provides. Let's say 240, technically. No wiring changes are needed."
Bickford's system was installed 12 years ago, at a cost of about $9,000 for the equipment. His Renewable Energy Program students gained practical experience by helping with installation. The same system today would cost significantly less, as photo-voltaic panels and other components have decreased in cost.
He envisions the future for renewable energy overall, and solar specifically, as "definitely bright because the cost is narrowing all the time, particularly with solar-electric systems. All the predictions I look at say that we're going to grid-parity, which means the cost of a solar-electric system over its lifetime, would be about the same as the utility retail rate price you would pay, within the next decade if not sooner. Some places in the country it's already true. So, utility companies will start installing large systems and will be selling electricity like they always have."
However, at this time, utility companies are going to greatly discourage anyone from doing grid-tied systems in the local area. According to Bickford, it's not cost-effective to be off-grid in the middle of town. He makes it work because he reduces his electrical load "down to a level that most would never get to." By using aggressive energy conservation measures such as diligently turning off all plug strips at night, using high-efficiency appliances, he makes the system efficient and cost-effective. Asked his opinion about net-metering and how the basic connection rates should be most fairly structured, Bickford proclaimed, "First of all, I would say I'm in favor of net-metering where people connect to the grid and essentially get paid at the retail rate for the electricity they generate." He understands, though, the utility company is "providing free, 100% efficient storage."
Carl remodeled his solar-electric house, but still uses natural gas for space heat and hot water. The shop he designed and built is heated with solar-thermal and passive solar features. He definitely favors passive solar design; stating, "absolutely, there is no reason not to consider passive solar with new construction; and, that's true in most parts of the country."
Carl and his partner, Christie, plan to keep their comfortable, energy-efficient home and do more traveling during retirement. Bickford said, "Producing your own energy off-grid is like growing your own food. There are times when it's a lot of trouble, and it may not have a simple economic payback; however, the satisfaction that comes with the effort adds greatly to the quality of my life."