Solar Energy Homes Tour in Northern Minnesota
Shorter days, longer nights, and colder temperatures have me thinking about people I have met, who rely on electrical energy provided by the sun. Over the past several years I have been able to visit five or six solar-powered homes.
My first introduction to solar energy in Northern Minnesota came when we visited some people who have a place-in-the woods, about 10 miles from our cabin near Grand Marais. Their land borders on a gravel road where
they keep their car, but to get to their year-round two-room home, it is necessary to walk more than 2/3 mile on a narrow path through the woods. The path was on low ground and small streams of water were running across it. Birds were singing on both sides of the path and the forest seemed alive. There are two solar panels on the roof of their cabin, and these two panels provided all of their electricity. A few automobile batteries store electricity for use when there is no sun. They are able to power a miniature refrigerator, several small lights, and also able to recharge the battery in their laptop computer. The electrical power these two people use is minimal, but it all comes from the sun. They have a shallow well near their house which is pumped by hand. There is an outhouse. All of their heat comes from a small wood near the center of their cabin. There is no backup heat or electricity. They live almost “off-the-grid”, but not quite…they have a telephone land line with dial-up internet capability.
During the years after this first visit to a solar-powered cabin, I had an opportunity to visit other people’s solar-powered homes. What I saw was quite a wide range of how various people live with a variety of solar energy installations. Some places have many solar panels…sometimes mounted atop a large steel pipe anchored in concrete, sometimes on a standalone aluminum frame built to support them, and/or on the roof of a cabin or garage. Solar provides some or all electricity for each residence. There is a wide range of comfort. Most (but not all) places have running water pumped by electricity, and indoor plumbing with septic systems. Some have their own storage batteries, while other people connect to the electric grid (thereby removing their need for batteries) and sell power back to the power company when they have extra, and buy power when there is no sun. The people who have their own batteries and are not connected to the power grid, seem very pleased when they have electricity, while others do not because the power lines are down. However, batteries do require some maintenance. All people did most of their heating with wood, which is quite plentiful in northern Minnesota…either with the furnace separate and outside the home to heat water which was piped into the home to provide heat; or alternatively with small wood-stoves inside the home.
One site I visited was a small cabin right on the shore of lake superior…again with only two small solar panels, several lights, a small refrigerator, and a small wood stove used for cabin heat, cooking, heating water, etc. There was an outhouse (a legal one which is pumped out periodically). But there was no well. All water (drinking and otherwise) was carried from lake superior in buckets.Apparently, the water is so cold, it is safe to drink. An older retired couple live there. They spend at least one week a month at that cabin…12 months of the year. They also have a small apartment in Minneapolis.
My impression was that the two things which are a problem because of the limitations of solar energy are: heating and cooling. In the woods, many people heat primarily with wood anyway. Air conditioning is not required there because it is quite cool. Even a refrigerator or freezer can be a problem though. Some people had super-efficient refrigerators, Ecofridge from Denmark…very expensive, but they take less electricity than one 60 watt incandescent bulb. One person also told me about a super efficient freezer…also from Scandinavia and very expensive. There are an interesting variety of solar systems. Some people have no backup; others have LP gas backup for heating and also to power a backup electrical generator. The cost of solar panels has come down dramatically in the past few years, and a surprising number of people in the north woods are adding solar panels their homes and cabins. In the forest near Grand Marais there are more than 100 systems. Some were chosen because there were no power lines nearby, others for various reasons including people who are very independent, and some people who want to be “inexpensive” for nature to support, or to have a lower carbon footprint. I learned that “going solar” has far-reaching ramifications including the selection of appliances, and how people actually live. Adding solar to existing buildings looks like it can be especially complicated.
by Gary Wilhelm