Leaving the Lights on in My Energy Efficient, Money Deficient, Very Much on-the-Grid House
By Tom Bodett
Let’s get this out of the way – Yes, I’m the guy you’ve heard saying “We’ll Leave the Light on for You” out of some radio every six seconds for the past 32 years. And yes, I do leave the lights on. Why? Because I can.
I live with my family in Vermont in a great big, energy-sucking house on top of a windblown hill with a connected office and recording studio, woodshop, tractor shed, and most of the accoutrements of an all-American lifestyle, including a heated swimming pool – and I haven’t had an electric or heating oil bill in eight years.
What we do have is 250 running feet of galvanized metal framing holding a [3,000 square-foot] array of photovoltaic (PV) panels splayed out in the hayfield in the general direction of the sun. There is a 1,000-foot-deep well nearer the house that we circulate water in and out of as 13 tons of heat-pump capacity in the basement borrows or loads BTUs to cool and heat our lives according to the season.
Not everyone can tell you the size of their carbon footprint, but it appears ours is a quarter of an acre. That may sound like Sasquatch proportions, but the patch of land that would otherwise produce $50 worth of hay in a year powers a higher quality of life than the one enjoyed by King Henry VIII. Granted, this is due mostly to antibiotics and indoor plumbing, but you know Henry would have literally killed for a plasma screen and a massage chair to go with that gout stool.
Unlike The Tudors, we do not live off-the-grid. Our sun-powered domain would not work without the grid. The industry term for what we have is a “grid-tied net-zero system:” We make as much or slightly more power than we use on an annual basis. The power company lets us feed its grid in real-time with what we don’t use, and sells it back to us when we need it. At night, for example. And through the winter.
In the months we make more juice than we use, the power bill shows a credit. In the winter months, we eat up the credit and it all starts over in the spring. In essence the grid is our battery, but instead of using lithium-ion or NiCad cells, our excess power is stored as money.
Our local grid infrastructure tends toward short, irregular power outages caused by wind, lightning, and idiots in cars, but we no longer suffer those. No more dragging the cold-hearted, 5,000-watt generator out of the shed to noisily keep the freezer from melting in the summer, or the pipes from freezing in the winter.
When the grid goes down now, a microswitch disconnects the load from the grid and shifts our critical circuits to a lead battery bank in the basement that will keep us in business for eight hours. It happens so fast we often don’t even notice the grid is down until we try to use something big like the electric sauna or a table saw, which are not on the critical load circuits. (“Critical” is a subjective term and the source of spirited household debate.) If an outage lasts longer than the batteries, they will automatically recharge from the solar panels when the sun is up. We could go on this way indefinitely, and sincerely hope we will never have to.
People often express envy that if everything falls apart and civilization comes crashing down, we’ll be able to freeze what we can scavenge or kill and prepare our lean stews by electric light while we watch Netflix. I don’t think so. If society comes unglued, the last thing I want is the house on top of the hill with the lights on. We’ve all seen The Walking Dead. Now imagine those zombies with dead cell phones in their greedy hands. I’ll be eating my raw crow in the dark, thank you.
We were on the early adopter side of things in 2010 and qualified for the power company incentives. They end up paying us more for the power we sell than they charge us for what we buy back. The idea is to encourage people to build solar, and this ongoing premium from the utilities, along with generous state and federal tax credits for the installation costs, made it fairly irresistible from a numbers standpoint.
Public subsidies in 2010 were about 45% of project costs, with 30% of that coming from federal tax credits and 15% from Vermont state rebates. Vermont’s rebate program is no longer in play. The federal tax credits are the same, but scheduled to be reduced after December 31, 2019.
I’d like to be able to say we did this at great personal sacrifice to save the planet, but in truth we’re not that noble. I’m happy to know we’re doing far less to bake the Earth than we used to – our size 11 carbon bootprint is now a tasteful petite pump – but the real reason we pulled the trigger on solar and ground-source heat pumps was the 10% return on investment (ROI). That rate of return fluctuates with the price of energy, but in round numbers we’ll get our entire investment back in under 10 years, with the lion’s share of the useful life of the system still ahead.
The ROI on the heat pump system is greater than the PV because we replaced an oil-burning boiler that sucked 2,500 gallons a year. When the price of oil goes up, our ROI does too. Never mind that the difference is eaten up by the cars and tractor. They are on a separate ledger and I don’t like to talk about it.
I will say, to our credit, that my wife and I were aware of being early adopters and were surely paying more for the system than we might 10 years down the road. That has proven to be the case. All those incentives are having their intended effects, and lots of people like us installed PV, driving down prices and opening the market for others.
Our installer recently confirmed that our solar array would cost us half today what it did in 2010, even with the lapse in some of the incentives. That makes it a five-year, or 20%, ROI at our current electric rates, which rank as the eighth-highest in the country. If you live in Louisiana, where rates are the lowest, your ROI will still be 10%.
Would we do it again? That depends on who you ask – me or my wife. I’d put up three more rows of panels tomorrow if she’d let me. I’d keep adding solar until I could charge an electric Volvo, a Tesla, and a plug-in pickup truck using nothing but sunshine that would otherwise be growing grass for other people’s horses. Sunshine to horsepower. Same equation, less poop.
My lovely wife – whom I will call “Rita” because that is what she answers to – feels otherwise. She loves the whole part about saving the planet and is not above saving the money. What she can’t stand is the look and feel of it all.
Even the 15 white pines we planted to block the view of the solar field from the country road we live on couldn’t make it right for her. She thinks we look like a factory or secret government installation, which betrays the very aesthetic we claim to cherish.
This debate goes far beyond our kitchen table. Local planning and zoning commissions across the country are wrestling with the visual impacts of this proliferation of alternative energy generators, widely referred to as “Green Sprawl.” If Rita and I ever come to agreement on this, I’m going to write a paper about it and win the Nobel Prize in Zoning.
When I come up the driveway, I see a modern wonder. Rita sees an industrial-scale eyesore.
When I come up the driveway, I see a modern wonder. Rita sees an industrial-scale eyesore. You say tomato, I say 225 tons of saved carbon emissions.
The complexity of it also makes her uncomfortable. I knew this going in and made sure the engineers designing our system understood that, in order for this to work for Rita, it had to be a turnkey, hands-free operation. She wants light when she throws a switch, heat when she turns a thermostat, and a 1-800 number to call when it doesn’t work. They were able to accomplish this with a byzantine network of controls built into the system expressly to keep it simple. Controls that malfunction sometimes. Or need calibration. And recalibration.
Our basement looks like the engine room of an attack submarine and it generally requires an engineering degree and a clipboard to solve problems.
And when things fail, it is never as easy as resetting a circuit breaker or seeing that the pilot light is out on the furnace and calling a plumber. Our basement looks like the engine room of an attack submarine and it generally requires an engineering degree and a clipboard to solve problems. All I have is the clipboard with 1-800-WTF? written across the top.
I happen to like puzzling through problems with the technicians and learning the science behind it all. Rita would rather drive the Volvo into the Connecticut River. Willful ignorance and wishful thinking won’t cut it with a thing like this in your basement, and she knows it. It used to be the tractor, woodshop, and recording studio she dreaded dealing with if I ever have the Big One. Now it’s the whole damn place.
“How can I sell this house?” she says. “I can’t even explain it!”
Because I love her, I’d hate to put her in that position, so the least I can do is try to outlive her. I exercise more and watch what I eat. Yet another bonus of green energy.
That little wrinkle aside, one of my goals with our very visible sun-propelled homestead was to demonstrate that you could Live Green without having to suffer a kale-based lifestyle. Recycling, composting, and ambling about in a Prius are not the easiest things to sell. It’s icky. And dopey. Ask yourself, why is it 10 times more frustrating to wait for a Prius to make a left turn than any other make or model? Dopey.
Elon Musk rolled out his Tesla brand with a screaming-fast all-electric muscle car. He wanted people to have fun with saving the planet. It is fun. And if I can ever get Rita behind the wheel of a Tesla Roadster, she might let me add those solar panels yet.
Tom Bodett is an author and broadcast personality heard regularly on NPR’s satirical weekend news quiz Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me. He has been the national brand spokesman for Motel 6 since 1986, which allows him to live in the middle of a hayfield in Windham County, Vermont, rather than near an actual job.
Headshot of Tom courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan