Woohoo! We are now net producers of Electricity!

Finally, only about 2 months after the solar panels were installed on the roof, and 6+ months after we signed the contract, our solar power system is turned on! It’s an 8 kW system, so we will be producing far more than we use. We’re still paying for 100% green energy (to make sure we are effectively buying back our own electricity and not not some from a coal fired power plant!), but we will still make quite a bit of money back, which will then help us pay off the system.

2 rows of solar panels on a tiled roof

Of course, we are also still using gas for heating and our instant gas hot water, which is not a renewable resource, so over time we’ll want to convert more of that over to the solar – well, the heating anyway. Eventually we might get solar hot water, but we certainly won’t be switching back to an electric water heater before then! But for the moment, we need to continue to work on just reducing our electricity consumption so as to pay off these panels as quickly as we can, via the feed-in tarrif.

And of course, even after that, the question remains as to whether we should switch from gas heating to electricity to use “our” solar power, or whether it’s a better option to feed that back into the grid to replace coal based electricity for other people (which is, after all, worse that using gas, though neither is renewable and both do have some level of emissions).

We also got an Effergy wireless electricity monitor with the system (Armada threw it in for free as we are getting such a big system), which will help us easily monitor our electricity usage from moment to moment and day to day. I’m hoping being able to see that – and explaining to the kids how it works too – will help us manage more effective behaviour change as a family, to cut our electricity use right down.

But in the meantime, I’m just going to enjoy watching the metre tick over, showing how muchmore  electricity we are producing than using. That’s going to be fun.


The first Canberra Urban Homesteader’s Group meeting and whatnot

Today I attended the first ever Canberra (& surrounds) Urban Homesteaders meeting, and it was really awesome. We had about nine people attend, interestingly eight women and one man. I’m not sure what they means!

There were a whole lot of different skills and variations on the homesteading theme, with probably the one common feature being the desire, and/or plans, to do more.

Nigerian Dwarf Goat, Photo by 'Just Chaos' (flckr)Conversation veered from chicken house designs to garden plans, discussions about food preservation to hunting feral goats. Or raising cute little Nigerian Dwarf goats for milk. Bee keeping came up to, though none of us currently do it. I learned that you can only harvest native bees’ honey in the warmer climates where there is plenty of pollen for them year ’round – down here in chilly Canberra they can only produce just enough honey to see themselves through the winter. There’s none to spare for hungry humans. Oh, and there were a couple of architects there who design sustainable houses! Maybe one day we will be able to afford to have them design us an extension to our house 🙂

We each introduced ourselves with a bit of our homesteading story, but typically I didn’t feel I did a very good job, covering our currently defunct vegie garden, but failing to talk at all about our fabulous solar system, our focus on energy efficiency, our somewhat nebulous plans to collect rainwater, or my current sort-of-focus on learning to be just a little bit more handy – though I did finish the rib section of the hat I am knitting for Eliane, while I was there.

A while ago (probably several years in fact), Rhonda from Down to Earth had a meme going asking people to write a little about where they are on their journey. I never got around to it, but maybe I will do it now!

In other news, we still have not go our solar system turned on, but supposedly the inspection will happen before the end of this month, and then we will finally be self-sufficient in electricity at least!

The Solar Panels Go On!

First the brackets:

installing the first brackets

Don’t be fooled by the blue(ish) sky. It was windy and with occasional sprinkles of rain, and made it to 8.7 degrees C that day. When they started at 7am it was 4.8 degrees.

brackets all the way along the roof, but no panels on yet

A few of the panels waiting to go on:

Solar Panels

The first row goes up – before the wind picked up and they had to take a break:

the first row of panels going on

Rugged up to watch:

two kids rugged up in jackets and beanies and standing on chairs to be able to see

All the panels are on! Now we just need to get ACTPLA to approve it so we can turn them on…

42 solar panels on the roof

We ended up getting a pretty big system, 42 panels in all. I’ll talk about how we decided on it in a different post. For now, I am pretty pleased each time I come home and see those panels on the roof. But I’ll be even more pleased when they are actually doing something! Edited to add: Here’s why we decided on such a big system.

Making Quark Cream Cheese, aka Yo-Cheese

I made a batch of yoghurt a couple of days ago that came out a bit runny. I’m not really sure why. The kids had been asking for yoghurt with flavours other than those I’ve figured out how to make from scratch, so I used 4 tbsp of the boysenberry Easiyo sachet, which I’ve found in the past is plenty, and for good measure I put in the last tbsp of a tub of Jalna yoghurt that was in the fridge as well. So I was surprised to open up the Easiyo thermos the next morning and find that the yoghurt hadn’t set very well – it was not very thick and kind of stretchy.

It had been about 12 hours and the water was more or less cold, so I carefully removed the yoghurt container and refilled the thermos with hot water (not fully boiling though) and left it for another five or six hours. By then the yoghurt was set better but still not as thick as usual, so I decided it would be a good candidate for “draining” to thicken it up. I wasn’t planning on actually making quark, I was just going to drain it for a couple of hours. I’ve had extra thick yoghurt at my mum’s house before where she had done that and it was pretty yum.

Well, 36 hours later it was still in the fridge, so… quark it is!

a 'pat' of quark, tipped out of the cheese cloth onto a blue plate

Only, I’ve never really liked sweetened cheeses, and although this wasn’t very sweet it wasn’t that cheese-like to me either. So we just ate it like regular yoghurt, by the bowl full. I’m not really sure what else you would do with it, although if it were a little less thick I could imagine having it instead of cream or ice cream with a bowl full of berries or a slice of chocolate mud cake. Actually, we could still have done it even with it being this thick if we had any berries or chocolate cake! Then again, we do that with regular yoghurt too.

We got through more about half in one sitting:

half eaten quark cream cheese

In other news, there are people on my roof installing solar panels as I type. One whole side of the roof (facing ENE) will be covered. Unfortunately ACTPLA can’t get here to approve it until August! So we still won’t actually have solar power for another month, meaning the whole process from when we started getting quotes will have taken about seven or eight months. That’s what extra good government incentives “ending soon” will do for an industry I guess. (And they have ended now, or at least reduced dramatically, but we got in with our deposit ages ago, so we’re okay!)

Quark, birthday parties, bread and broken arms. Oh, and burned chicken stock!

What I have been doing lately, while I haven’t been updating this blog…

Making birthday party invitations and party bags with my big five-year-old daughter Mikaela:

Making bread rolls with slightly old yeast and no where near enough time for them to rise (they were still yummy, but a bit dense!):

Making quark (this is an experiment that is not yet complete – it’s been draining for about 4 hours at this point, and I’ve just opened it up to take the photo):

yoghurt draining through cheese cloth into a bowl

Waiting for hours in hospital for various people to look at, X-ray and operate on that same daughter’s arm, only then she was still four. She broke it and needed pins put in. Ouch. But the cast is awesome, and waterproof!!

Hot pink cast from wrist to shoulder (almost)

Oh and making my house smell vile for days on end, despite leaving many windows wide open everytime we left the house (it was too cold to have them open when we were here), by leaving chicken stock on the stove overnight (not even on low) an burning it to a cinder. Oops. I didn’t take a photo of that one!

This is all well and good, but what I am doing tomorrow, is finally getting solar panels put on my roof! Very exciting.

Update by notes

I don’t seem to have time for anything lately, but here are a few notes of where we are at:

  • We’ve signed a contract to get $28,000 worth of solar panels, ie about an 8kw system. This has involved extending out mortgage, but we figure we’ll put all the income earned by them back onto the mortgage and have the extension paid off in around 12 years, after which it will earn us a few hundred a month, and in the mean time, it’s contributing green energy to the grid, so all is good.
  • My decluttering is coming along slowly. I have been taking a few bags of stuff (clothes, books, toys) to Vinnies most weeks, not to mention all the old magazines I’ve recycled, that weren’t even worth donating to anyone (why was I keeping them?) but I can see that it is going to take me a Really Long Time, to get through the whole house. So far I haven’t been very systematic about it, which I’m realising I probably need to be, if only to keep my motivation up.
  • Our vegetable garden has been a complete and utter failure this season, due to absolute neglect combined with lots of rain – it is over run with thigh high weeds. Though the parsley is still doing well in amongst it. I think we need to build a chook dome and put the chooks in there for the winter, but that’s just one more thing to try to fit in to our lives.
  • Speaking of chooks, the two new ones we bought towards the end of last year are now laying, and we are getting lots and lots of eggs. Three laying hens is just right though – we are using up the eggs pretty effectively, but never quite run out. It’s lovely that some part of our backyard pantry is doing okay!

More on solar power

So we had someone come out and talk to us about installing solar power today, and he said that a roof facing due east would be 20% less efficient than due north. Ours, as it turns out, is not as close to east-west as we thought, so we will only get about a 15% reduction in efficiency.

The Mr worked out that the person he spoke to on the phone (from another company), probably didn’t mean being east-west was .08% less efficient, but .08 less efficient, ie 8%. That’s still significantly different to the advice from this fellow though.

The person we spoke to today is local, from a Canberra company, and the other company was a national one (and the office was in Sydney), right there I am more inclined to trust him. Plus the fact that they send someone out to talk to you. He is going to give us a quote which will include estimated annual electicity generated, annual income (based on the feed-in tariff rate we’d be set with for the next 20 years), estimate payback time, and estimate income over 20 years. He said most solar panels will have dropped about 20% efficiency by 25 years, 10% by 8-10 years.

He also said that you can get a bigger inverter than you need, just so long as it’s not too much bigger (eg get a 1.5 kw system and a 2 kw inverter, but not with a 5 kw inverter).

PS My baby just took her first crawling ‘step’ and just taught herself to go from lying down to sitting, all while I’ve been sitting here typing!

Solar power in 2011 update

So the Mr has been talking to people about getting solar power installed, and the advice we’ve got so far is that it’s not a good idea to get a smaller system now (just to get in while the feed-in tariff is high) and add to it later when we have north facing roof. But that it is a good idea to get a system now.

There were two issues: firstly the person he spoke to yesterday said you can’t really add more panels later (no explanation for this at the moment), and secondly, apparently if we got a inverter now that would do for a larger array, it would be make the system significantly less efficient than if we have an inverter matched to the output of the array. The advice that you can’t expand a system later is contrary to what I have read elsewhere, so I will be following that up.

The other thing he was told by this same company was that they don’t put the tilted brackets (to balance out not being north facing) on tiled roofs (which we have), but that putting the solar panels on our west facing roof would only be be 0.08% less effective than if we had a north facing roof. I can’t really believe that, so I’ll be interested to hear what other people say. We have an installer coming out to give us some advice on Wednesday.

In my research into solar power systems I think I’ve established that, with the amount of sunlight we have here and the current rebate and feed-in tariff available, it shouldn’t take more than five years for it to pay itself off, whatever size system we get, whether it’s because it’s reducing our electricity bills or because it’s paying us an income. So if the advice we’ve got so far is right, it seems like we should get the maximum size we can possibly afford right now. Of course, with me on (unpaid) maternity leave right now, finances are a little tight, but… I am going to speak to my friend next, the one who is getting interest free finance to pay for hers. If we could pay it off over three years, and it’s paying itself off almost that quickly, well – that might be quite feasible.

I’m going to blog this whole process (assuming we do go ahead), partly just to keep a record of what the various different people tell us. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to remember everything in your head the way people were trained to do in the bad old days before paper was abundant?

PS Update on loss of efficiency from being East-West facing and having a bigger inverter than you need (initially) on the next post.

Looking at getting Solar Power in 2011

Part of a solar arrayWe have been looking into getting solar power to reduce our carbon footprint here in our suburban home. We have a West/East facing roof and we expect to extend our house in maybe three or four years and gain some North facing roof, so we’d been leaving solar panels on the back burner thinking we’d worry about them then.

But. At the moment where we live in Australia there is a very good feed-in tariff, set for 20 years from the time you sign up, and also a good (federally provided) subsidy for installation. And both of those things are set to go down this July. The feed-in tariff has already been reduced once, and is set to do so every year for the next few years.

So we’ve been considering whether it would be more cost effective to buy now, even if only a small set up, and get hooked into the grid, and then add more later when we have a North facing roof. There are brackets you can use to lift up the panels on the West facing roof, to get better efficiencies. Of course, that costs more and also takes more space, since you need to have them further apart to ensure one panel is shadowing the next one. However, to be locked into a better feed-in tariff rate for the next 20 years, not to mention having and extra three or four years of solar power, it’s probably worth it from a cost perspective.

At the moment the federal subsidy works about to be about $6200 in Canberra for a 1.5 kw system or bigger (how much it is depends on where you live, as it is based on the energy produced by your system). Also this year the ACT conservation council has organised a discount for people booking through them with a particular installer – how much depends on your system size, but it’s $150 for a 1.5 kw system. Not a huge amount when you are talking several thousand dollars, but better than nothing. Maybe it will cover the cost of one of those brackets. So for the minimum sized system we’d be paying less than $4000, plus whatever extra it costs to install with the brackets.

To get a slightly bigger system the price goes up significantly, since $6200 is the maximum subsidy. But then I have a friend who is getting a solar system installed who has managed to swing an interest free loan (through the installer I think) to be paid back over three years. By her calculations the system will have completely paid for itself in five years, so basically she’ll have a small extra expense for the next three years and then it’s all roses from there. It’s looking rather attractive really.

Of course, the cost of residential solar power systems keeps going down – which is the justification for the government reducing their subsidies – so maybe the cost difference won’t be that great whether we do it now or later. But in that case, why not get the extra few years of green energy? We’ll be calling to get some quotes this week.

New solar LED garden lights and Solar Powered November

Since I’m doing NoBloPoMo this month, which means posting every day, I’ve decided a theme is in order. Now you might think I’ve already set a food theme with my new vegetarian dishes posts, but no. Since I bought some solar LED garden lights earlier this week (lantern style, but more on that later), and besides have been thinking about other ways to use domestic solar power, I’m declaring it a Solar Powered November. I’m going to research all manner of solar powered home appliances, and related issues like how to save electricity in general.

Now, as to the lights I have bought…

I chose some Gardmans Lattice Lanterns, mostly because I wanted some lanterns style lights and those were the only ones in Bunnings (I’d link, but they’re not on the Bunnings website). They came in a pack of four (and were AU$29.95), which I plan to use three of in our front courtyard, where we like to have BBQs of a summer evening, and one out the front of the courtyard, where our front door light keeps blowing. We just put a new compact fluorescent in there a couple of weeks ago, and it’s blown already!

These lanterns only have one LED each, which seemed to be pretty standard, so I’m not sure how much light they will really give, but the front door light doesn’t give much anyway as it is behind a bottlebrush tree. I will place this one a bit closer to the driveway and hopefully it might have some effect.

Like many solar garden lights, these turn on automatically when it is dark. They also have an ‘off’ setting, but they don’t seem to have a straight ‘on’ setting, and the instructions are to use them without any other light, as that could cause them to flicker. Likewise they are to be placed at least a metre and a half apart, so the light of one doesn’t turn the next one off. So that gives a good indication of how far their light goes I guess.

I haven’t seen them in action yet, and I’m not sure if four will be sufficiently useful, but I’ll write review when I have used them a bit.

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