October 16, 2012

Solar frees Upstate family from power grid

One Oconee County couple avoids paying big utility bills thanks to a solar power setup at their two-story home in the mountainous northwestern corner of South Carolina.

No matter how much mail they receive each month, Nicole Hayler and Buzz Williams never see a power bill.

They are among the few South Carolinians who rely almost exclusively on solar energy for electricity.

Most folks with solar panels on their roofs or in their yards also draw electricity from power companies for times when the sun goes down or rain falls.

But as the solar debate heats up in South Carolina, Hayler and Williams have figured out a way to avoid buying any power from utility companies.

Solar panels in their backyard feed into a bank of 16 batteries that store the energy day and night. Electricity travels through an underground wire to the batteries, which send power into their Oconee County home.

And on the few occasions when extended rainy periods draw down the batteries, they crank up a generator to keep the lights on.

It’s been that way each of the five years they have lived in their two-story, wooden home in the state’s mountainous northwest corner.

The married couple, who run the Chattooga Conservancy environmental advocacy group, have a high-definition television, a stereo system, a freezer, a refrigerator, computers and most other everyday amenities.

They just don’t power them with nuclear-generated electricity like other folks in the area. Nor do they receive an electric bill for several hundred dollars each month.

“It does work – and in the future it is going to be a huge part of our energy system,” Williams said. “This is on the way.”

Solar power is increasingly popular across the country because it can bring down people’s monthly energy costs. Advocates also say sun power is a renewable source of energy that doesn’t produce air pollution or poisonous waste, like coal or nuclear energy.

Despite solar’s popularity in other states, relatively few South Carolinians rely on the sun for any of their electricity. Restrictive and complicated state laws, concerns by power companies and poor tax incentives are among the reasons the industry hasn’t taken off in the Palmetto State. Of the state’s more than 4 million residents, only a few hundred are known to use solar power.

In addition to their solar panels, Hayler and Williams use energy conservation measures to make the most of the power they generate in the backyard.

Their house has a rock floor downstairs to help retain heat in the winter and keep it cool in the summer. They also feed a woodstove during the winter to warm their home. Cool mountain air keeps the house comfortable in the summer.

Additionally, Hayler and Williams have purchased a refrigerator and a freezer that run on DC current, which operates more efficiently with sun power. But any appliance would work, they said.

Like many people in South Carolina who get some of their electricity from solar, Hayler and Williams say they do without mainstream power sources for philosophical reasons.

Both are committed environmentalists, who are raising their 12-year-old daughter to live more simply. The family lived in a Mongolian style hut for years while they built the solar-powered home themselves. They did most of their cooking on a stove outside and used a wood-fired furnace to keep the interior of the hut — called a yurt — toasty. They also experimented with a homemade solar panel to heat water for an outdoor shower.

Hayler, 52, and Williams, 62, said solar helps them avoid dependence on Duke Energy or their local electric cooperative. Hayler and Williams oppose nuclear power like that generated just down the road at Duke’s Seneca atomic power plant.

Going solar, however, wasn’t cheap or easy.

Hayler and Williams spent more than $20,000 on solar panels, another $5,000 on a solar hot water system and thousands more on a consultant to work out start-up problems with their system.

Hayler said they were able to finance the effort through an inheritance she received. Instead of spending the money creating a lavish lifestyle, Hayler invested in solar, she said.

She and Williams acknowledge that they were lucky. Most people don’t have $20,000 to $30,000 to sink into a solar energy system up front.

During their initial foray into sun power, they also encountered a few headaches. They relied on the advice of a consultant whose work didn’t measure up. The solar batteries he recommended were not strong enough for the solar panels in their backyard, they said.

“I was here one night and all of a sudden all the lights went off,” Hayler said. “I said ‘It’s not working.’ That was the big warning sign that the system was not designed properly.”

To remedy the problem, they hired a second consultant out of Virginia, who put in a different brand of batteries — and more of them. Since then, the system has run like a top, Hayler and Williams said.

The moral to the story, they said, is to hire a reputable company to do the work.

The couple recommend solar to anyone. Once their system was operating properly, it required only that they check the batteries periodically and fill them with water when needed. They also must be conscious of battery power dropping when cloudy skies occur for four consecutive days.

“When it finally worked right, I said, ‘Wow. This is pretty cool,’” Williams recounted.

If folks don’t have the money up front for a full solar electrical system, they should at least consider heating water with solar panels, Hayler said. Solar hot water heaters are an ever popular method of saving money in many communities nationwide.

In their backyard, next to the panels that provide electricity to their house, are two black panels with tubes running through them. The tubes contain a liquid solution that heats up when the sun hits the panels.

The hot liquid is then pumped through a pipe to a heating coil inside a giant tank of water under their home. The superheated substance warms the coils, which then heat the water they use for showers and washing dishes.

“This is not just to avoid paying power bills,” Hayler said. “It’s a question of, ultimately, we’d be better off if there were renewables like solar in the whole energy consumption scenario. That is our way of doing it.”

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