From 30 to zero: crush on kilowatts, Part II | Guest column

By Candace Gossen & John Patterson

Special to the Journal

If you are waiting for your utility company to reduce your electric rates, to give you a pass on peak-demand fees, or to replace all of your energy with renewables, it’s not likely to happen.

But you can reduce your 30kWh/day electrical habit to zero with some grit, muscle, investment and education. In Part I of this two-part column, John Patterson laid out the steps, beginning with insulation, to ensure that your house or building is leak free and to reduce your electrical waste.

Space heating accounts for up to 50 percent of the energy used in each household. In the San Juan Islands, 80 percent of the 13,604 households (2014 statistics) have electric baseboard or another electrical heat source. The same percentage of households have electric water heating. These two factors alone account for 75 percent orC. Gossen 22.5kWh/day, multiplied by nearly 11,000 households, equals a whopping 248Mwh/day of electrical use that is mostly wasted heat because of inefficient thermal design.

In 2015, the average monthly bill from Orcas Power & Light Cooperative increased to $125 per household, due to new rates and facility charges. Imagine reducing that in half just by increasing insulation, thereby eliminating wasted leaks, and by installing solar hot water. Every meeting I have ever been in and introduced solar water heating I get the same reply, “It doesn’t work.” But that’s not so.

Solar water heating is 100 percent efficient in transferring heat from the sun into a thermal mass of water, whereas a photovoltaic panel is only 15 percent efficient in taking protons and changing them into electrical energy.

So, we always begin with heating water as a replacement for electric water tanks that run 24 hours a day, waiting for you to take a shower. It’s inefficient.

For $5,000 (do-it-yourself) or up to $7,000 (installed) you can replace 25-50 percent of your electrical bill and payback the system in 5-10 years. Another great thing about it? If a submarine cable goes down you still have hot water, the sun is still producing all the heat that you need inside your house and in your water. Commercial water heating systems benefit even more.

The remainder of your electric bill 3-6kWh/day is largely for lighting and appliances. There are many efficient options out there for both. State and federal incentives can help offset the cost of replacing your older, inefficient stuff. Through 2016, state and federal financial incentives will even pay up to 30 percent of your solar-water heating costs.

Lets apply this to a real life scenario for comparison in the San Juans. In the Community Solar for Our Schools Program that the Conservation District is leading, the proposal is for 50kW of photovoltaic panels to be installed on four public schools at a cost of $200,000. This equates to four sun hours a day on average, times 50kW or 200kWh/day, saving each school roughly $20 a day. The schools usage is approximately 4,000Mwh a year (11,000kWh/day), most of which is heat lost due to inefficient designs and leaks.

Now compare that same $200,000 invested in solar water heating. At $5,000 for do-it-yourself, there could be 40 units installed, offsetting 25-50 percent of the daily household usage of up to 15kWh/day, totaling 600kWh daily. Those 40 units could actually be installed as a social equity investment for those not able to pay their electric bill. The difference is that that 600kWh a day is completely on solar and off-grid. Of course, there only are 247 sunny days annually, so a backup electric, on-demand or propane system would have to fill in.

With grit, muscle, investment and education there can be great and significant change. We both have lived it, taught it and experienced the possibilities. Are you ready to invest in your future?

— Editor’s note: John Patterson is founder of Portland-based Mr. Sun Solar and inventor of Sol-Reliant solar water heating system. Candace Gossen has taught solar architecture and ecological design for more than two decades.

Gossen and Patterson will teach a solar water heating installer certification workshop at Skagit Valley Community College’s Mount Vernon campus, July 11.