The Locavolts movement: Grid-connected solar power & wind farms

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locavore-point-reyes-solar-safety-net.jpgThe “locavore” movement is big, especially in California. With the bounty of food found locally in the Bay Area, living off the land — and sea — is not only possible, but also a delicious exercise.

But there’s another, less obvious, revolution brewing here in the Bay Area: the “locavolt” movement. In response to high gasoline and natural gas prices, global warming and an increasingly unstable, scary world, people are looking to generate power right in their own homes and neighborhoods with free energy from nature.

Technology advances in computers, telecommunications, generators, inverters, and even cars, are all giving the locavolt new tools to harness renewable energy and lead a fairly normal life.

Within the next few years, plug-in hybrid cars in California will be able to serve as a mini-power generator for your home and store renewable energy from your solar photovoltaics system or your small wind turbine. Plug-in hybrids may also help balance out a smarter electricity grid capable of easily sending power back and forth between generators and consumers, much like we send and receive e-mails on the Internet today.

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The locavolt movement actually has its roots in the ‘70s and ‘80s in places such as Mendocino County, when solar power was the best option for rural homesteads not yet connected to the grid. Then, in the 1990s, solar costs decreased while state incentives for home and business installations increased. Unlike the old school purists, these newer locavolts have cooperated with the local utility, using its grid as backup whenever necessary. The downside to this modern arrangement is that when the utility grid goes down, so does the solar power system — and modern life as we know it.

One of the cutting-edge members of the locavolt movement is Jerry Lunsford, who lives completely off-grid on less than 1 kilowatt (kW) of solar power on the outskirts of Point Reyes Station in Marin County. Lunsford works at the Dance Palace, a community center that literally sits on the San Andreas fault line on the edge of PG&E’s grid.

Worried about the next power outage, which can last for days on end in this rural area, he installed the nation’s first “solar safety net” this past spring. The battery back-up system allows part of the solar power system to provide basic services — lights, telecommunications and refrigeration — when power goes out during emergencies. The rest of the time, he’s connected to the grid like most everyone else.

“Self reliance should be the goal here,” Lunsford said. “Being responsible for our own electrical generation is a large part of the puzzle when it comes to global climate change.”

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Just up the road in Petaluma is Stubbs Winery, which brings the concepts of “locavolt” and “locavore” together in one place.  There, Mary and Tom Stubbs grow organic grapes to make premium wine. They live off-grid, completely powered by 2 kW of wind and sun, consuming only 5 percent to 10 percent of the amount of energy of you or me. “I like the independent aspect of not being beholden to anybody,” acknowledged Tom Stubbs.

He noted being a locavolt isn’t always fun. “Our best time for wind power production is spring, but our energy supplies are at their lowest in winter,” he said. “I become a bit of a tyrant with our children, following behind them turning off lights.”

Grid-connected solar power was the fastest growing power source in the world over the past two years, growing at a 50 percent growth clip. More than 1.5 million homes around the world now feature solar power systems feeding into the electricity grid. California’s share of the U.S. grid-connected market is 60 percent, by far and away the national leader.

And a study from Europe solar companies and Greenpeace projects that with strong government support as much as 10 percent of the world’s total population could be solar powered by 2030. According to their number crunching, 40 percent of these solar customers — 2.8 million people — will be off-grid solar locavolt purists, primarily located in developing nations.

Just how many locavolts are really out there? Is this just a California fad? There is no inventory of locavolts, but one thing is for sure: If they are to successfully challenge our status quo approach to powering up our lives, they must still overcome a few obstacles:

  • change existing regulations precluding the sharing of solar power with neighbors
  • access smarter energy storage systems
  • reduce the costs of solar PV, currently the most expensive of all energy choices

off-grid-community-wind-power-stubbs-winery.jpgWhat about T. Boone Pickens, and his massive $4 billion investment in wind power? Is he a locavolt? That is a matter of opinion. Purists would say no, but if one take a broad national perspective, one could argue that giant wind farms sporting machines over 300 feet tall is still promoting home-grown energy, albeit Texas-style, which means BIG PROJECTS.

There are many factions of locavolts. Boulder, Colorado, and New York City represent the urban high-tech crowd, as does Silicon Valley. At the other extreme are folks in rural areas installing small wind turbines (not the giant machines in wind farms, but the small ones, like at the Stubbs Winery). About seven of eight sales of small wind turbines went to an off-grid locavolt last year. In Minnesota and Iowa, the preference is “community wind” projects owned exclusively by local farmers, schools and your other neighbors. This more neighborly approach to being a locavolt is catching on with solar PV in the Pacific Northwest and in Sacramento, California.

Within the next year or so, the Bay Area may bolster its locavolt credentials with a California program that allows local governments to choose power supplies for its constituents. The program is called “community choice aggregation, the San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Marin County are all investigating this option that would allow them to stay with PG&E for billing, distribution and repair service, but allow their local elected officials to choose more locally-produced green power. In Marin County, for example, the long-term goal is go 100 percent renewable energy.

If truth be known, the technology is now available to secure up to 40 percent of our electricity from local, distributed renewable energy sources like wind and sun, if we stay connected and get creative with storage from batteries, cars and maybe fuel cells. It will take a long time for locavolts to challenge the powers that be, yet something tells me the locovolts are on to something big.

[photo credit: Flickr, Stubbs Winery]

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  1. Super insulation cuts power consumption, and in amenable locations so does underground living! Solar distillation of salt water is a slow process but possible and cheap, Free electrical power from the sun a modern day reality and Wind power is long known and used – The birth of a new life-style is the next likely step! Folks who live off-grid and communicate by computer to relay useful survival information! I see whole communities living off of GMO’ed super-veggies, Aquaponics, Solar, Wind, Wave, Hydro, Tidal, and geo-thermal,power, using ground heat storage and laughing at the 8 to 5′ers, as they take contracts on cruise-ships and the like, for a few months a year to make some cash! “The Man” and his paper chains on your soul is losing his grip as technologies are revealed! Soon, planned obsolescence will die out, and “disposables” will lose popularity and we will work less and love more!

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