The Irony of Energy

We are all doing our best to endure the great storm of 2010, as evidenced by Facebook posts that refer to monstrous wind, grape-sized hail, nearby condo fires caused by lightning strikes, flooded yards and outbuildings, highway closures all over the state, tornado warnings (huh?), filling sandbags, and record lows in barometric pressure. We’ve done remarkably well on our little hill in northwest Petaluma – so far, all I have to complain about is bored dogs, muddy carpets, and a fairly tense commute to work this morning.

So I thought I’d reach a little farther and ponder the Irony of Energy.  We have been affected by this phenomenon in two ways – too much gas and too little sun. Our Energy story over the past 8 years is Murphy’s Law exemplified.

The Propane Paradox

The first year we moved to the country, a storm like this knocked out our power for well over a week. Our house is 100% electrically-powered, so this was a pretty big deal. For you city folks, when one depends on a well as one’s water source, electricity to run the well is a fundamental requirement (or the toilets don’t get flushed).  Thus, we were smugly delighted that the house had come equipped with a stand-by generator. The secondary benefit was that the refrigerator and a few lights/outlets are also wired into the bypass circuit panel, so the food doesn’t spoil and the TV and computer can easily be powered by an extension cord to the bathroom.

However, the previous owner apparently did not see the value of a permanent propane supply, instead relying on an ancient 25-gallon portable tank as the fuel source. During that extended outage, we quickly learned the truth about the three adjectives describing that tank:

  1. 25-gallons of propane lasts about 18 hours when powering a house generator 24/7.
  2. Said ‘portable’ tank weighs about 150 pounds, and is thus quite challenging to transport to the local filling station, especially in a storm.
  3. By ‘ancient’, I mean equipped with a no-longer-legal filler valve, which meant we had to (a) choose a filling station where we were personal friends with the CFO, and (b) slip an extra bill to the guy doing the filling.

I lost track of how many times we loaded that damned tank into the truck in the rain, headed out to the [to-remain-nameless] filling station, bribed the guy to fill it, and dragged it out of the truck and across the yard to hook it back up. But it was enough that when we repaved the driveway, we also had the contractor dig and plumb a trench and pour a concrete slab, all in hopes of installing a more permanent solution.

We quickly learned that a permanent propane tank was a considerable extravagance for our house because the stand-by generator was the ONLY consumer of gas on the property. Here’s how the propane companies work: if you can demonstrate consistent usage with a one or more ‘systems’ (stove, water heater, central heating, dryer, etc.), they will rent you the tank for a nominal annual fee and rely on the refills for their profit. Not us, we were stuck buying the big ugly thing outright. So when my mother asked me a few years later, “What do you want for your birthday?”, the answer was immediate – a propane tank! Thanks, Mom!

The 250-gallon tank was installed and filled exactly four years ago in January 2006. Since then, I doubt that our combined power outages have exceeded 24 hours. At this point, the tank exists to support the weekly automated generator self-tests, and the occasional power outage when some fool takes out a power pole on Stony Point Road. At last check, the gauge still showed 80% from the initial filling.

So this is my first 2010 offering to Murphy’s Law. I shudder to think what meteorological nightmares might have occurred had we not installed this tank. All of you in Southern Sonoma County, indeed perhaps all of Northern California, should thank me now. But I can’t help wishing that this 2010 storm of the century had caused more of an electrical impact on my house so I could feel justified about installing that tank.

The Photo-Voltaic Puzzle

Late in 2009, we decided to install a significant solar-energy system. We were motivated by our electrical usage (remember, our house is 100% electrically-powered – bad for the propane but good for the PV system), and we were further pushed by the alternative energy incentives included in Obama’s Economic Stimulus Package of 2009. Seriously, a 30% tax credit against the cost? How do we ignore that?

We spent much of the fall researching options, getting bids, selecting a contractor, getting a new roof, watching panels get installed. Fast-forward to January 5, the date the system went live. We were SO excited! We have 44-235W panels, two 5000W inverters, our entire roof faces the south, and we live in California, for gawd’s sake. Now’s the time for the meter to begin spinning backwards, right?

And so we move to our second 2010 offering to Murphy’s Law. Because in the two weeks since the system was officially turned on, we have had nothing but inland tulle fog that was pushed west by a freakish pressure inversion on the coast, and now the worst winter storm the area has seen since the invention of the wheel (or thereabouts). By our latest calculations, I think we have generated enough energy to power our house for about a nano-second.

So that is my current storm story  – the Irony of Energy in my little microcosm of the world – too much of what I don’t need and not enough of what I want. I’m trying to do the right thing for my carbon footprint, but so far, it isn’t quite working out as I’d planned.

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