The Age of Aquarius

fifth dimensionYesterday at work, I remembered I hadn’t signed into a new gizmo my solar installers had set me up with, so I finally did that. This is so cool, I’m sharing it with the world. And you.

Back in 2005, a solar system (not the solar system, with Mars and Jupiter and –always still in my heart — Pluto) was installed by my friend Bruce on the roof of Pat’s Screen Printing. To be perfectly technical, at the time, it was installed on the roof above Leatherworks, the business that belonged to my landlord, because the roof of Pat’s was blocked from the sun most of the day by the three-story building just south of ours.

Although it went on the roof, the eight-panel, 1.28-kilowatt system was mounted on a ground rack, because the roof was flat and because I didn’t own the roof. On the north exterior wall of Leatherworks, up high, there was an inverter (a Sunny Boy, for a fun name) to convert the direct current the sun was producing into an alternating current that could tie into the city’s electrical system. On the inverter was a display that showed how much solar was being produced that day, how much the system had generated in total, and how much carbon dioxide I personally had saved the planet from.

But it was up high. The city’s meter, with a rotary dial, was down at eye level, but because my solar production on a good day was 6 or 7 kilowatt hours (kWh) but our usage was 50 or more kWh on a workday, the only time you could see the dial move backwards (very slowly) was on a sunny Sunday early afternoon. Although I did do that, several times, taking great delight in watching the dial move in opposition to the Leatherworks dial.

So every Friday I would haul the company stepladder out and around the building, get out my little notebook in the shape of a penguin, and log my readings for the week. I then put it into a computer spreadsheet — although at some point, without explanation, I lost a lot of my spreadsheet. I still had the raw penguin data, but was too demoralized to rebuild it on the computer.

Then work life got busier. Our landlord was looking to cut back just as we were looking to expand, so we ended up moving under our panels as he moved back into the space that had been his retail storage.

[Your Daily Aside: now the landlord has retired and closed up shop, and as of this month, that back area is once again serving as retail storage space, but this time for Pat’s Screen Printing. And sorry, we can’t repair your shoes, no matter how much you want us to.]

We got busier, and the trips out to the inverter with the ladder got fewer until they just stopped completely. I just operated on the assumption that on good days, I was still producing six or seven kWh and personally saving the planet from some CO2 output.

But then.

One January day of this year I looked up from the sidewalk on the other side of Main Street and thought one of my eight panels looked funny. Before I made time to get on the roof, illness struck and wiped out the next two months for me (that sounds very dramatic, but it was just an endless series of sore throats and swollen glands, some of which responded to antibiotics and some of which didn’t).

Like several things this year that have felt very protracted, this was the start of A Whole New Era in solar energy production.

My eight solar panels had been produced by BP — yes, British Petroleum, the same company that brought you a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Solar (and wind) power are only made possible through the use of materials from extractive industries. Apparently these panels were failing so frequently that a class-action suit was successfully brought against BP.

My friend Bruce is long gone from both the solar industry and Gunnison, so after I finally got on the roof and discovered that yes, one of my panels did look funny, and my inverter offered no data, I called Jay and Lena of Nunatak Alternative Energy, now based in Lynn’s work town of Almont. They helped guide me through the replacement process, a process that got somewhat hung up because BP just couldn’t envision panels owned by a tenant on a building owned by someone else.

When the panels were replaced this summer, one of their employees told me the cracked panel had actually caught fire. And while an electrician was on the roof, he noticed a problem with wiring for the building itself. My electrician retired this summer and relocated to Maine to take up hops farming, and Nunatak was having trouble finding electricians to fit their projects into schedules, so we were both relieved to get Peter of Argent Electric, who fixed the building wiring (two different fires waiting to happen) and who hooked up my replacement panels (not from BP), which finally got inspection approval in November.

Old, then new: my intrepid photojournalism skills faltered when faced with snow on the roof, so instead I went for the ground-level shot. But look! Isn’t that someone’s sporty Nissan Leaf across the street?

Instead of eight, I now have six panels, but instead of a 1.28-kW system, it’s 1.87. And — this is where it gets really cool — each panel comes with its own mini-inverter, and instead of a readout at ladder height, I can sit at any computer and monitor my solar production pretty much by the minute. Here’s the great part of this: so can you!

I only logged into this yesterday, remember, and so far I haven’t figured out how to search on-line to find this site, but I believe if you go here, you can see this:

solar 1218

Now, this is yesterday’s production, because so far today I have .01 kWh of production (the sun is only just barely up), but the beauty of this is that you can use the calendar toggle to check my output on any day. You can even make educated guesses as to which days the panels were covered by snow, to help you track Gunnison’s weather patterns.

Isn’t this the coolest thing ever?

Instead of me keeping penguin notes and putting them on a doomed spreadsheet on the quiet of my own computer, now the whole planet can see how I’m personally saving it from CO2.

The public page doesn’t appear to be nearly as detailed as my private log-in page, so I’m not sure if it will show you how many Grand Prix race laps I’ve offset (I think it’s about two since the inverter-reader-thingy went live on Nov. 24), and I don’t know if you get a color code to tell you that the lighter blue the panels appear in the picture, the more solar I’m producing.

But you (and I) can sit in the relative comfort of our indoor spaces — and so can the company stepladder — and watch my solar system (not the one with Venus and Saturn) at work. It is, indeed, a whole new age. And, because it’s already been in the back of your mind this entire entry:

Have a great, sunshiney day!

3 thoughts on “The Age of Aquarius

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