Will Solar Work Where I live?

The following article was written for the Mapawatt Blog by Paul Scheckel.  Paul is an efficiency consultant, author of “The Home Energy Diet”, workshop leader, and occasional guest on national TV and radio. Learn more at

Paul contributes articles periodically to Mapawatt.  The article below was in response to a request to help readers in the Southeast understand that solar does work in our climate.  Paul lives in the Northwoods of Vermont and is able to live in a home with all the comforts and appliance available in a grid-tied home... except his only sources of power come from renewable energy.


Living With Solar and Gaining Efficiency

When I tell people I live off-grid in a solar electric powered home, at first they may imagine a hovel – a dim, drafty, old log cabin with a lot of really weird gadgets cobbled together in some unsafe and sloppy way. A look of sympathy comes over their faces as if to empathize with my suffering. “Good for you!” they say, “but it must be so hard. How do you live without all the modern conveniences?” They go on about how their kids leave the lights on and all that laundry. Most confide that while they would love to “stick it to the utility” by not having to pay power bills, but conclude that they just can’t afford to make any investments in efficiency or solar power. It’s far enough out of the norm that they can’t picture what solar living would be like. “And besides, solar power doesn’t really work around here, does it?”

Living in New England with its long dark winters, I can understand the concern about the lack of sun available to meet household power needs. I opted to “go solar” in part due to the expense in getting power lines run to my home, but also out of a personal desire to be as independent from purchased energy as possible. When I built my home as a single person on a tight budget, photovoltaics (PV, or solar electric generating panels) were quite costly so I could only afford a small 500 watt system. That’s about 1/10 the power demand of a typical home, and I learned to live within my power budget by carefully managing my use. I paid close attention to weather reports and it didn’t take long before it became second nature to time my high energy using activities to coincide with the sunniest weather. Excess energy is stored in batteries and a power inverter supplies standard AC power to the house. In the event of many days without enough sun, a diesel generator can be used to charge the batteries. When I was single, there was time to make my own biodiesel from waste vegetable oil for use in the generator. Now I buy it.

My solar electric power system has grown over time with my family and associated increase in power demands. It now includes 4,000 watts of PV a 1,000 watt wind generator, and about a week’s worth of power stored in batteries that live in a well-insulated outdoor shed. The diesel generator rarely gets used and overall system maintenance is minimal. Other than the power system, the house is otherwise entirely normal. It’s your average home, nothing fancy, just 1,500 square feet of average. Visitors remark on the 19-cubic foot fridge, the clothes washer, dishwasher, microwave, toaster oven, TV, home office, bright lights, coffee grinder, hot and cold running water, and so on. “This isn’t what I imagined” is the usual comment. “It looks so normal, and everything works!” As if I want to live in the dark ages… I enjoy living in the modern world as much as anyone else. Most of all, I want my home and its contents to be simple, affordable, durable, and work well with a minimum of maintenance, just like everyone else does.

If solar power can work here in cloudy New England, it can work most anywhere. Even with overcast skies, the PVs produce about 20% of their rated power. Most homes with PV are connected to utility power so there is no need for battery storage or a backup generator – the grid serves as both energy storage and backup. My most recent solar and wind upgrades took advantage of greatly reduced equipment costs and a 30% federal tax credit, making it financially attractive to invest in renewable energy.

(Mapawatt Note: For more information on Solar PV in your area, check out our post on Solar PV Payback and Production calculator)

But you don’t have to “go solar” to have a low-energy home. My appliance-laden home uses about 5 kilowatt hours (kWh) per day, compared to the average American household’s use of around 30 kWh per day. Taking advantage of the latest technology and understanding how your actions can support an energy-efficient lifestyle gets easier every day. The greatest difficulty I’ve had in trying to curb my energy use is in convincing sales-people and contractors to dig a little deeper and try something new. When I shop for appliances, I look at the yellow “Energy Guide” tags to see which one uses the least amount of energy. I am amazed at how many appliances on the sales floor are rated toward the higher end of the consumption scale, and at how often these energy guzzlers are the models on sale. You must be your own advocate and educate yourself as to the best and most efficient appliances for your needs. Once you’ve figured out what you want, you may need to wait a while for delivery, as the most energy-efficient appliances are often not in stock. You may also pay more up front, but remember that the sticker price of an appliance is only the first of many payments you will make towards its lifetime operation and maintenance costs. Investing in efficiency is generally more cost effective than buying enough renewable energy to meet your needs, because savings earned through efficiency upgrades help to pay for the improvement more quickly. Energy efficiency makes renewable energy more affordable, allowing a lower overall investment to meet a greater portion of your energy needs.

Renewable energy sources have been dubbed “alternative energy” — a phrase that marginalizes the true value of these traditional energy sources. The fossil fuel era will be a tiny blip in human history, and nuclear energy is not only too expensive, but society has yet to deal with long term waste disposal. These fuels are really the “alternative” to traditional energy. Humanity will need to use what nature offers without breaking the budget of the natural capital available to all of us, and against which we’ve borrowed heavily. Take it personally, take action, and impress your friends with low energy bills!

Paul Scheckel is an efficiency consultant, author of “The Home Energy Diet”, workshop leader, and occasional guest on national TV and radio. Learn more at

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5kWh/day ... I'm impressed. On a good day I might get to 8, when I *cough* run the dryer in the winter, it's much higher. Over the last 9 months I've averaged 11kWh/day. Just my radon fan uses 10% of a 5kWh/day budget, though! I may have to buy that book. :)
Hi Eric 8 kwhr is quite respectable! When you get into the extreme efficiency mind set, you start doing crazy things to beat the meter. For example, my microwave oven has a standby power draw of about 5 watts. I put it on a switched power strip so that the "phantom load" is eliminated when I turn off the switch. That one action saves me the equivalent of about a week's worth of power over the course of a year.
ckmapawatt's picture
Eric, Keep in mind that he did write the book on Energy Conservation!
By and large I've done <i>most</i> of those tricks (for example my AV receiver has a switched outlet on the back; makes it very handy to plug an outlet strip into that, and the subwoofer/tv/dvd/Wii all plug into <i>that</i> so they all go <i>off</i> when I turn off the receiver). But I went around <a href="" rel="nofollow">tallying up my always-on loads</a>, and it's still too high. 2 (small) fridges, 1 40W computer (web &amp; email server), and a 20W radon fan contribute quite a lot to the base load, but I've got to consolidate/remove a lot of those nickle-and-dime loads, too. I see your microwave measurement, and raise you one doorbell transformer measurement. :) I'm pretty sure there's a vampiring 24VAC thermostat transformer buried in the ceiling somewhere, too....
Nice chart, Eric. You kind of need the radon fan until some passive alternative can be found. The question for you (and the rest of America) is: what will you give up first when the excrement impacts against the turbulating oscillator, and we really DO need to constrain our energy/carbon footprints for reasons of cost, climate, or rationing. Alternatively, how much are you willing to pay in solar electric (or other renewables) cost to keep your current lifestyle operating? We just leave our door open and let people shout their presence! Though you could use an old hard drive for a door knocker. :)
<I>what will you give up first...</I> Indeed... so far, I've been really preaching that I don't give up anything at all, other than maybe a little light quality with CFLs. I'm more than 50% under the state average for electricity use, and we don't live in a cave, either. :) People are more receptive to "you can live smarter; you don't have to live sparser or harder" - and that can get you a long ways towards significant reduction. In the long run though sparser will be needed as well... but smarter is more marketable for now. Yes, a hard-drive door knocker might work; it'd save me almost 20kWH/year. :) (I laugh, but that's over a day's worth of production from my solar array! For a <i>doorbell!</i>)

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