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Let There Be Light

Monday, February 20th, 2006 · 1 Comment

Our three-day power outage ended last night. It was a frustrating and eye-opening experience, and we learned a lot about things like generators and surviving in the Northeast without power in the winter.

We were mostly comfortable — we had hot water, flushing toilets (if you’re on a well, you don’t have any running water, as is the case in Kinderhook when the lights go out; this happened several days before our wedding in 2003), plenty of candles and flashlights, and eventually our running furnace. We have a gas furnace, yet it requires electricity to run. If it’s possible to have a hot water heater without electricity, then why not a furnace, too?

Some of us are fortunate enough to have family with generators or have the means to buy one in situations like this, but what if you don’t have the connections or the means? What if the lights go out and you’re stuck in the cold? (Yes, communities do open up schools and other shelters when these things happen, but everyone prefers the comfort of his or her own home to a cot in a school gymnasium.) All the more reason for such a gas-only furnace design (maybe there is such a thing), or, better yet, solar and wind power!

Even before this outage, I recently looked into purchasing a solar electricity system for our home. Our December 2005 kilowatt per hour usage was 665 kWh. One kilowatt requires 100 square feet of solar paneling, so we would need 6 solar panels (600 sq. ft.) to be off the electrical grid. (Let’s set aside practical reasons like the fact that upstate NY doesn’t get as much sun as California, and that we have a lot of trees around our property.) Without any state incentives — New York and California have the best solar incentives in the nation — a 600 sq. ft. solar system would cost $47,000. New York state pays about half the cost, and you get a 30% federal tax credit (max. $2,000), and a 25% NY state tax credit (max. $3,750), bringing the cost of the system down to about $17,750. Our December total cost for electricity was $85.77, which included $6.65 toward our GreenUp wind energy. Aside from the environmental and power-crisis reasons, a solar system is also like paying for your electricity usage for life. At $85.77 per month, 206 months (17 years) later, you break even.

If you plan to be in the same house for that long (and can afford it), or are building a house, I think it makes great sense. Every year after those first 17 you’re ahead of the game, you’re doing your part to conserve the planet’s energy, and you’re not going to be in the cold if the power goes out.

Below is our MacGyvered furance-powering system we used to heat our home for two days:


Happy plays shadow puppets:


View more power outage 2006 photos

Tags: saratoga springs

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Saahil // Feb 23, 2006 at 11:07 am

    Hey Gabe,
    Glad you made it through the blackout OK! Found your comments on solar power interesting, but here’s my two cents:

    $17-18k is a lot to pay for a 17 year payback, especially since that calculation doesn’t even take into account the time value of money. It seems to me that despite all the tax incentives, etc. residential solar technology just isn’t cheap enough to justify buying it today (unless perhaps you live in Arizona or some other extremely sunny place). Here’s my list of concerns:

    1. 17 year pay back period doesn’t make financial sense, especially since the panels probably won’t last forever. If they only last you 17 years, then, under ideal circumstances, you break even. But once you take into account the time value of money and the factors I point out below, it would certainly be a money losing proposition unless the panels last 30+ years.

    2. What is the realisitic # of kilowat hrs you can expect given where you live? Depending on how much regular electricity you have to buy it could really affect the equation. Even if you use little to no electricity off the grid, if you want access to the power grid for emergency/backup purposes, you will still have to pay all the ripoff connection costs, distirbution fees/taxes, etc. that are part of your monthly electricity bill.

    3. Maintenance costs? Again this will alter the equation.