My First Solar System
By Jason Jepsen, Commercial Energy Consulting
It was still sunny out, but it was getting colder and the days shorter. My fiancé and I had moved into the old Native American log Hogan a month earlier. The stout wooden door, scarred with bear claw marks, held out the San Luis Valley wind and snow. But the one window I had cut in with a borrowed chainsaw allowed little light. As a result we had been using a couple of cheap kerosene lamps.
The small firebox on the massive antique Monarch stove, which fully occupied the center of the Hogan, was burning up all the cottonwood bark and piñon scraps I could gather from the side of the road. So a week earlier, I had driven my Datsun pickup to Alamosa and purchased a truck bed of coal for $5. Now we were warm. Still in the dark though.
Looking down the barrel of a long winter at 8,000 feet in the Rockies, and with a wedding the following spring to prepare for, I called up a solar shop in Boulder and started to pick components for my first solar system.
It’s fair to say, I had been looking forward to this moment for years. I had traveled quite a bit, mostly by thumb, relying on good folks and good karma. I sojourned in off-grid spiritual communities in Europe, Nepal and America, gaining respect and understanding of energy, efficiency and cooperation. It had become my dream to live off-grid in a sustainable, earth-ship style house. Indeed, at this same time, we were also negotiating our first purchase of raw land - 3.67 acres of sand with a south-facing slope for $2,000. I was so excited to get a solar power system! We budgeted $1,500 on the credit card.
Panels were more expensive in 1995. I paid $550 each, for two 75-watt modules. A Trace C30 charge controller, two golf-cart batteries, some wire, fuses and car lights rounded out the order. I was like a kid on Christmas when the gear arrived! My dream was coming true! I was going to live on solar - I was! Of course, about the only thing I’d wired at that point was a bicycle light. Under-tooled and undeterred, I set about racking the mods and running some tray cable here and there. I had no idea about electricity or mechanics. True to form, I dove in.
My folks visiting me at the Hogan. Modules and sweet racking job on the roof.
I weathered a few sparks and blew a handful of fuses, but I eventually, frustratingly, got it wired together. I doubt anyone forgets their first solar moment, and I’m no exception - it still brings tears to my eyes. When I inserted the final fuse and hit the switch, I saw the light! We did a jig! Our quality of life just went through the roof. We could see, without oil! I fondly recall this first small DC power system, wholly sufficient for our needs, which gradually grew into our final off-grid system, a 240 VAC, 11 kW system with sixteen L-16 batteries, powered by a mere 2.4 kW array (high, cold, sunny). As our needs grew and changed, solar was always right there. Our kids were born and raised off-grid, on solar power. It’s inherent for them.
Living far from the grid develops a lot of skills and character. Independence reigns for the cost of making your everything. There’s not a lot of help around, and whoever is on the other end of your bag phone (yes, those huge analog cell phones the cops used to have) is your best buddy. Fortunately, the solar help I received during that first install was no help at all! I saw a need and potential, and I knew I could do better. Two months later I started my first solar company, Mountain Power Design, to locally serve the increasing number of miscreants settling on the edges of society. I ran my company off-grid, on-solar, of course.
The learning curve was steep - I’m grateful to be alive, really. But it’s been a ride worth all the burns and hernias and arthritis. And I’m proud to say over the next 15 years, my company had a profound impact on developing solar energy systems in the very sunny San Luis Valley - perhaps the best solar location in the country. Most were off-grid systems backed by tons of lead and sulfuric acid, though eventually I connected the first solar systems in the valley to the grid. Those were pre-net-metering days - remember Guerrilla Solar?
Solar energy is captivating. Once you experience it, the natural beauty and magic of solar power, you wonder why and how you ever diverged. It’s like a homecoming, or like meeting an old friend again, after a long absence. You can’t wait to get caught up and see what’s next!