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So … yeah. Three years between posts. My excuse? We’re just too bloody busy. So busy, in fact, that while we continue to adhere to a more or less environmentally friendly lifestyle, we haven’t really done anything new since that last post. We’re just maintaining.

That said, we have discovered a new product or two, and we’ve seen our efforts pay off in several practical directions. As winter settles over us and my hippie instincts kick into high gear (an annual occurrence for as long as I can remember), I’m feeling inspired to write about the joys of living lightly. A few quick updates:

1. Product endorsement: LED lights have taken a quantum leap forward in terms of quality and price since we bought our first one in 2007. Back then, they were hard to find, expensive (over $30 apiece, plus shipping), and ill-suited for general illumination. Today, LED “bulbs” are much cheaper ($10 to $20), readily available at big-box hardware stores, and will illuminate a room as evenly and effectively as the spiral CFLs we’ve been using since the late ’90s.

2. Solar panels: Still going strong. We still have cheaper power bills than any of our friends, and we’re still delighted with the performance of the system.

3. Chickens: Hot weather and old age took their toll on our flock, so we bought two buff Orpingtons and a barred Rock from an ol’ boy down at Broken Arrow. They’re producing well and seem to be getting along well with our rooster, Bond, who is a remarkably quiet chap.

4. Bees: We had a record honey harvest and captured an incredibly strong, productive Buckfast swarm this spring.

5. Garden: Droughts, heat waves, blossom-end rot, fusarium wilt, and an intolerably busy schedule have more or less destroyed our tomato crops every year. Someday, when I’m not a teacher any more, I will have time to baby my plants and get them through these issues. Until then, the best I can do is support the local farmers’ market.

6. Woodstove: We haven’t had to pay for heat since the ice storm of 2007. Between that and Oklahoma’s frequent tornadoes, we find a steady supply of firewood piled up on curbs, readily available to anyone with a truck, a chainsaw, and a little initiative. I just used some of the money we saved on heat to buy a ridiculously expensive teakettle from Lehman’s.

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This morning, I was working in my office when I heard a scraping sound on the side of the house. I went outside, and there was an AEP-PSO repairman, taking the cover off my electrical meter box.

“Hi,” he said. “We got word that there must be something wrong with the meter … that it’s going backwards.”

Not again, I thought.

“Well, the meter is going backwards, and I’ll show you why,” I said. “Take a look on the roof.”

He stepped back a few feet and saw the solar panels.

“Well, I’ll be,” he said.

He turned out to be a nice guy. He peppered me with questions about the system … how much it cost, how much power I was getting from it, etc. He thought it was cool that we were getting so much power from it.
He shook his head a bit.

“I think we need some training on this,” he said sheepishly. “We just don’t see hardly any systems like this. There’s one other one I know about, and he has the same problem — the power company’s always checking to see why the meter’s running backwards.

That sounds familiar, I thought.

He started to walk down the driveway. “Well, sorry to bother you. I’ll try to explain to them what’s going on so we don’t keep coming out here,” he said.

****

On a semi-related note, the system generated 134 kilowatt-hours of electricity from Jan. 20 to Feb. 20. That’s an average of 4.32 per day.

We’re really starting to generate juice now. The cool temperatures, combined with lengthening daylight, and we’re seeing days of 7 KWH and higher.

I’m a bit behind on my usual reports, but I did collect the data.

From Dec. 19 to Jan. 20, we collected 4.53 kilowatt hours per day. With our current electric bill from PSO, we used just 10 KWH of power from the utility during the entire month. So we were getting well over 90 percent of our power from the solar array.

In the six month since the solar-power system was placed online, it has generated 971 KWH of electricity. Divided by 175 days (I took off seven days because of the ice-storm power outage), that’s 5.54 KWH per day.

The past month has been a strange one at the House of the Lifted Lorax.

I usually check the solar array’s performance of a 31- or 32-day intervals. But in early December, Oklahoma was ravaged by a historic ice storm that downed trees and power lines all over the place. At one point, more than 600,000 customers were without power in the Sooner State. More than 10 days after the storm, there are still tens of thousands in the state without power.

Even though we get much of our power from the sun, the solar array is a grid-tie system. So we were in the dark along with thousands of other Tulsans. Our house had no power for a total of eight days. We did fine in the meantime — we had heat from a wood stove, hot showers from our gas water heater, and a number of LED lights to read and see by at night.

From Nov. 19 to Dec. 19, the solar array generated 70.1 kilowatt-hours of electricity. I lopped off eight days for the power outage, the average was 3.04 KWH per day. Given the fact these are the among the shortest days of the year, along with a long spate of cloudy days, the solar array did quite well.

In the meantime, I’ve been collecting downed tree limbs to become next year’s firewood. We probably already have enough wood for next winter.

A few weeks ago, I said “nearly 90 percent” of the power we consumed came from our solar panels.

I had a hunch it was higher, but wanted to be conservative in the estimates. The power meter fiasco a few weeks ago skewed the numbers, so getting a fix on what was being generated and consumed was difficult.

A few days ago, we received our AEP-PSO bill. According to the the utility’s actual meter reading, we used 12 kilowatt hours of electricity from Oct. 26 to Nov. 26.

No, that’s not a typo.

Twelve.

That’s barely one-third of a KWH per day.

I don’t have the solar-power numbers from that exact period, but they’re close enough — from Oct. 19 to Nov. 19. In that time, the solar array generated 158.5 kilowatt hours of electricity. And weather conditions between AEP-PSO’s billing period and the period that I track were similar.

So … 93 percent of all the power we used came from the sun.

Remarkable.

By far the biggest power drain we have is the air conditioner during summer. The solar array’s portion of electricity we use drops to as low as 50 percent during particularly sweltering months.

But the central A/C unit is well over a decade old; we plan to replace it during the spring for more energy savings. We’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

The days grow shorter, but in the past 31 days the solar array has generated 158.5 kilowatt hours of electricity. That’s 5.11 KWH per day, which is about equal to the previous month.

That’s all attributable to good weather. It’s been remarkably sunny and pleasant, with almost no rain at all. At one point, during a three-week period, we used just 24 KWH from the electric company. Nearly 90 percent of our electricity came from the sun.

And, yes, the new electric meter is still going backwards on clear days.

For those of you who may have missed the solar tour on Saturday, I put together a sort of virtual tour of our home, indoors and out, to give you an idea of some of the things we’re doing to reduce our environmental footprint. You can view the slideshow here.

Emily

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I think our hens may have been even more popular than our solar panels this afternoon as we led tours of the House of the Lifted Lorax. They certainly made a big hit with my young neighbor, who has been watching them from afar (or at least from across the easement) for months. He wasn’t comfortable with the idea of petting them when we took them out of the chicken tractor, but he definitely liked watching them through the chicken wire. When his mom and grandma got ready to leave, we had to coax him inside with the promise of a cookie (oatmeal-cranberry-chocolate-chip, made with honey and eggs from our backyard).

Between 20 and 25 visitors from all walks of life stopped by to see the house and yard. We had some old friends show up, we made some new friends, we got to know a few of our neighbors a little better, and we had a surreal but utterly wonderful moment shooting the bull with a pair of self-described “old hippies” who could have been us in 20 years.

One of our visitors told us she’d come more for the chickens than anything else, and one couple on the tour walked out to the backyard to see the solar array but shifted their focus to the chicken tractor the minute they saw it. As it turns out, they’ve been thinking about keeping chickens but weren’t sure how to start, being city dwellers. I think our feisty, funny Bond Chicks offered them as much encouragement as anything I might have said. I hope they’ll post and let us know how they’re doing when they get a flock of their own.

Our bees were a big hit, too, and several people were interested in the LED “lightbulb” in my desk lamp, which isn’t the brightest light in the world but is pretty whizbang nonetheless.

If you missed the tour, the organizers are already planning to do another one next fall. I am also hoping to get a hand free in the near future to put together a kind of virtual tour to give you a sense of what’s possible … and in the meantime, you can
click here
to see a copy of the flier we handed out, explaining the various things we’ve done to reduce our ecological footprint.

I’ll leave you with one more dose of cute:

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Have a good weekend, and go do something nice for the environment.

Emily

If you’ll be in the Tulsa area on Nov. 10 and need something interesting to do with your afternoon, local alt-power guru John Miggins of Harvest Solar and Wind Power is putting together a solar open house.

The event, which will run from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, will include visits to John’s office on Utica; a sustainable house that Frank Palmieri is building in Brookside; and, of course, the House of the Lifted Lorax.

I’m not sure exactly what John and Frank are planning at their places, but Ron and I intend to provide a guided tour of our house and backyard; a handy-dandy flier explaining all the stuff we’ve done to reduce our environmental footprint; eco-friendly snacks (including homemade salsa made from homegrown organic tomatoes and peppers, a batch of cookies made with honey and eggs produced in our backyard, and — if the weather is cool enough that day — hot tea and cider made right on top of the woodstove); and photo ops with the Lorax himself, who graces the mural on our garage.

We’ll try to answer all your questions about our efforts to reduce our environmental footprint … and if we don’t know the answer, we’ll be happy to make something up. 😉

Hope to see some of you on Nov. 10!

Emily

UPDATE: Click here for a PDF of the event flier, which includes directions to all three properties and details about the tour.

So I was surfing the Internet on a cloudy Friday morning when the doorbell rang.

It was a serviceman from American Electric Power-Public Service Company of Oklahoma, aka AEP-PSO.

“I’m here to replace your power meter,” he said. He warned me that if I had any computers running, I should shut them down and let him know when it was OK to begin his work.

The visit wasn’t unexpected. When we’d installed our solar panels in July, an AEP-PSO representative said it was likely that our power meter would be replaced with a digital model. When nothing happened for months, I figured it was simply the slowly turning wheels of AEP-PSO’s bureaucracy. No big deal — our solar array would work fine, new power meter or not.

After taking care of the computers, I went into the back yard to let him know he could proceed.

“So,” I said, “are you putting in a digital meter?”

“No,” he said, “we’re replacing it with the same model. We’ve been told your meter’s running backwards, and we’re putting one on that should work correctly.”

After a stunned pause, I said: “No, the meter’s fine. The reason it’s running backwards is because I have solar panels on the roof.”

The serviceman stepped back a few feet, gazed up at the roofline where the nine Sharp photovoltaic panels were lined in a row, and half-grinned. “Oh, that explains it.”

I realized what had happened. About three weeks ago, I’d received an AEP-PSO bill nearly triple of what it should have been. That’s because it was estimated, based on data from our home’s electricity usage since taking occupancy in 2004. (AEP-PSO conducts actual readings every other month.) But the estimate failed to consider our drastically decreased utility usage since the solar panels were installed in July.

I immediately checked the actual numbers on the meter and called AEP-PSO’s customer service line. I explained that we’d installed solar panels during the summer and that the estimated usage needed to be lowered. I briefly mentioned that the meter even ran backwards on sunny days. He seemed to understand, and said a revised bill would be mailed.

Weeks later, the revised bill had not arrived, and here was an AEP-PSO serviceman, thinking the meter was malfunctioning. The customer-service rep that I talked to obviously had filed an erroneous report.

The serviceman, even after seeing the solar array, was still determined to replace the meter. “It shouldn’t run backwards,” he said. “The solar panels should slow the turning, but it shouldn’t run backwards.”

I explained that this was a grid-tied system. When the sun was out and electrical use in our house was low, the meter would turn backwards. When the sun went down, the meter would resume its normal pace.

He nodded, but insisted the meter shouldn’t go backwards. I shrugged and let him swap out the device. It wasn’t like it was going to cost anything.

He also was startled when I told him that even before installing a solar array, our electric bill was as low as $32 a month.

Apparently AEP-PSO personnel have little experience with home-owned alternative energy.

He installed the meter and went on his way, convinced the problem was solved.

A few minutes later, I saw the sun peeking slightly through the clouds. I went outside to check the new meter.

It was running backwards.

So much for the so-called “repairs.”