LETTER: Creating a smaller footprint

It has been a very long haul since my partner Gail and I took the plunge on June 30 and paid for our solar equipment.

It has been a very long haul since my partner Gail and I took the plunge on June 30 and paid for our solar equipment, manufactured in China, to be transported across the US border into Canada.

Free trade has really destroyed our own manufacturing economy, but that is a whole other conversation. Sometime on December 5 electricity from six of the eight solar panels that are now hooked up to our batteries began feeding energy to our fridge, and to some of the circuits in our house.

We have a gizmo (I am the last person who should be explaining technical things to people) in the kitchen that we have figured out (thanks to a friend with a solar system) tells us that we burn 130 watts when the fridge is running and about 17 watts when it is not. I can see my spouse making a list of things she wants to get out of the fridge, so she opens it less. This is a woman who stores the water from her hot water bottle in a glass jar so she can reuse it and save water. More for the fish, she says.

David Hughes asked what the capacity of our panels were: 300 watts each, so that is 2,400 for eight. We still have not worked out the capacity of our batteries, but I can tell you that yesterday our batteries (sealed silicon salt) went from a quarter charged to fully charged in approximately three hours of winter sunlight. As I write this, I have determined that when the fridge is on, I think we drain 4.6 amps from our batteries. We are still waiting for one more set of cables to hook up the last two panels, and for the electrical inspector to approve the electrician’s work.

Then FortisBC can move the meter base from our house to the solar shed on the lot line and hook the whole system in so we can net meter.

The electrician has explained that we cannot wire the electric stove, and possibly the hot water heater, into our system as it would be too much for the inverter. However we hope to hook in the rest of the household circuits, and hopefully try with the hot water heater as well. The way I want the system to work is so that our house will draw down the batteries, which in turn will be re-charged from the solar panels, only drawing from the grid when more power is being consumed than created. I am hoping we can restrict when we draw power off the grid to the night time and thus ensure that our use of grid electricity helps shave the usual consumption peak load time. We are even planning to buy a solar barbecue to lessen use of the stove and will consider other ways to cook our food that does not include the stove.

The electrician has a concern that there will be times when the volume of power required will exceed what the inverter and storage batteries can handle, hence the debate over whether to plug in the hot water heater to the system. At some point my partner, Gail, and I will have to look at the manuals to make sure we understand how all the components work. Fortunately a next-door neighbour recently cut down an old fir, which we expect will now allow us to maximize winter sunlight. But the experiment to see how much household electricity we can generate on our own lot in Kaslo has begun.

This experiment is not for the faint-hearted financially, but the costs below are better than the $70,000 we were originally quoted a decade ago. In total it cost $21,661.15 for equipment, tax, electrician, building supplies and other expenses.

My spouse and I estimate that we have now spent in excess of $26,000 since 2007 retrofitting our house so we would consume less electricity, energy, from the grid. When I suggest to Gail that we will not see a financial payback from this investment in our lifetime (I am 64 and my spouse 57), she retorts that this was never about financial payback, but always about seeing how much smaller a footprint we could create for ourselves.

If you take into account the amount of energy that was used to have our solar equipment made and transported, this is where I get angry about Free Trade, and we have not even begun to talk about the ecological destruction that took place to extract the resources that went in to making our solar equipment. I am simply not sure about the ecological balance either. Believe it or not, Locke, Rousseau, Adam Smith and Rosa Luxembourg all talk about these environmental factors in their writings on society and economy, but it is social theorists and economists like Ricardo and Lenin who ignore the ecological environment.

However, if everybody in BC cut their consumption of household energy in half, as Gail and I gradually did between 2006 and 2012, then we could bolster our argument against Site C. Gail and I live in the “belly of the beast”, in that 44 per cent of the electricity generated in BC comes out of the Kootenays via, primarily, the Columbia River Treaty hydro dams, and we have lived with knowing that since we first met at Notre Dame University in Nelson in the 1970s.

In October we attended the fourth cross-border conference on the Columbia River Basin sponsored by the Columbia Basin Trust and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Spokane, and it is very clear that there are many individuals, families and organizations who want to restore the Columbia River ecosystem, from the headwaters to the mouth of the river in Oregon.

My friend and colleague, Bill Green, for example, has spent 20 years of his working life dedicated to collaborating with First Nations trying to restore the salmon run that our building of the hydro-electric dams destroyed on the Kootenay-Columbia. We have a renewed run crossing the border at Osoyoos and have technically determined that it is feasible to bring salmon across the border on the main stem of the Columbia and Kootenay. A goal of 2030 has been set to establish this new run.

That is what the goal that Gail and I have set, of moving to energy self-sufficiency, is all about: creating space for salmon to come up the Columbia again. In the big scheme of things our reducing our personal consumption by 2,105 kWh each year is very, very minuscule. But a local electrician tells me that he is backed up five systems trying to get to people who want to install solar systems at their homes. Likewise, at least three of our neighbours want to know about and are observing how our system works, before they take the plunge too.

As Malcom Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point “little things can make a big difference”.

Andy Shadrack, Kaslo