Fairbanks man explores life off the grid

Posted: Monday, June 18, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The midnight sun shines down on Rick Thoman's home off Murphy Dome Road, delivering life to his stereo and clothes iron.

Living in a home powered by a half-dozen solar panels and a windmill is a far cry from what some folks envision, Thoman said.

''This is not some depressing life of huddling around a bare light bulb,'' laughed the bearded and rubber-booted forecaster for the National Weather Service.

For most of the year all his energy needs are met by sunshine and wind, with no need to live a spartan life.

And while a neighbor's fuel generator hummed on a recent evening, the only sounds coming from Thoman's yard were an occasional barking dog or buzzing mosquito.

In Washington, D.C., President Bush has declared that America is suffering the most serious energy shortage since the 1970s.

Efforts toward increasing renewable energy use are building steam in the Lower 48. In California, ground zero of the energy shortage, solar panel manufacturers cannot keep up with the demand.

Interior Alaska, where the long winters are filled with cold and darkness, provides unique challenges for those who pursue renewable energy.

But Thoman and others living off-the-grid in Fairbanks are drawing substantial power from the sun, and Golden Valley Electric Association is studying whether wind turbines could help fuel the power grid's future.

Thoman said the sun, and to a far lesser extent the wind, provides all the required energy for his home's battery system from about mid-February to mid-October of each year.

Then, during the darkness of the remaining four months of the year, he has to fire up a small gas generator for a few hours every five days or so to keep the batteries charged.

But Thoman, who lives about three miles off the GVEA power grid, said he figured that his energy costs are far lower than if he used a generator for energy year-round.

''The up-front cost is more, but in the long run it is way cheaper,'' Thoman said.

Thoman said he paid somewhere around $5,000 for his solar energy setup after his 800 square-foot home was completed in 1996. The 44-foot windmill he put up was an additional $2,000, he said.

But he spends far less on fuel for the generator then he otherwise would, and said there is virtually no maintenance required for the system.

Thoman figures that an electrical heating system or an electrical stove would be too much for his setup, but his computer and other appliances run fine.

Six solar panels, batteries, and an inverter to convert the sun's power to a usable current are the key elements of Thoman's system.

While there is more wind up on Thoman's Murphy Dome property than in most places around Fairbanks, there is still not enough for the windmill to be very cost-effective on its own.

''Solar is by far the best choice for Fairbanks,'' said Rich Seifert, an expert in renewable energy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

But for people who live on the GVEA power grid, a sun-driven system is not yet an economically competitive alternative, Seifert said.

''If there is a four- or five-fold drop in price then (solar) will be everywhere,'' he said.

There are other obstacles to adding a solar-generated current into a home's grid-powered electrical system. Steps must be taken for the safety of utility maintenance workers, and billing issues arise.

But the barriers can be overcome, Seifert said, and home solar hookups into the utility power grid are increasingly popular in California and several other states.

Renewable power might well flow through the GVEA grid first through the harnessing of wind -- a weak element in Fairbanks but a howling force elsewhere in the Interior.

GVEA officials are interested in possibly adding wind as a power source and have launched a study to evaluate the wind resources throughout Interior Alaska.

Wind-generated power could be considerably more expensive for GVEA than coal-fired energy, but a possibility is to ask utility customers if they would be willing to pay an extra ''Green Rate'' to support wind energy.

The Anchorage utility Chugach Electric Association, which has been studying wind resources in Southcentral Alaska for years, is considering offering such a rate.

''It would allow customers who are interested to voluntarily support what would amount to an earlier than otherwise introduction (of wind power),'' Chugach spokesman Phil Steyer said.

Based on rough calculations, the utility has figured that the Green Rate would probably have to be about 20 percent higher than the regular one, Steyer said.

''Only those customers interested in supporting the program would see an impact on their bill,'' Steyer said.

The electric grid does not differentiate between power sources, Steyer said, so a person who opts for a Green Rate would not personally receive more wind-generated power than their neighbor who does not wish to pay extra.

The utility would likely start small with wind power and ramp it up if the support made it worthwhile, Steyer said.

Kotzebue Electric Association already built a wind farm of 10 turbines that provides enough electricity to meet the needs of some 200 homes in the blustery Northwest Alaska town of about 3,000 people on the Bering Sea coast.

The first turbines went up in 1997 and the farm tripled in size two years later. The Kotzebue utility is hoping wind can eventually meet all the community's electricity needs.

Should they prove feasible, the wind farms in Interior Alaska are at least four years away, according to GVEA.

In the more distant future, renewable energy experts have bigger dreams for Interior Alaska and the world.

UAF's Seifert envisions a world that will someday be driven by hydrogen power rather than fossil fuels.

''You could essentially take all carbon-based fuels out of the energy economy,'' he said. ''That would be an enormous benefit to the world. If you take carbon out of the production cycle, 95 percent of the pollution goes away.''

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