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Off Grid Home Design

This blog post is a transcript from the How 2 Build Green podcast!  Ian shares some great info for off grid home design and renewable energies.


Adam:  Today we have Ian Wolfenden with us. Ian has lived off grid with wind electricity, solar electricity, solar hot water and wood heat on an island in the Pacific Northwest for the last 35 years where he has raised his large family, run multiple businesses, and now focuses on educational work in the renewable energy industry. The list is long for Ian’s accomplishments in the renewable energy sector. Ian has been senior editor for Home Power magazine since 1998, renewable energy program developer and coordinator since 1996. He’s been the author of Wind Power for Dummies and coauthored Power from the Wind. Additionally he is a consultant for residential and small commercial renewable energy systems. Welcome to the show Ian!


Ian:  Thank you Adam. It’s my pleasure to be with you today.


Adam:  Great. Just to kick it off here, tell us about your journey, your interest, your passions and how they relate to renewable energies, Ian.


Ian:  Wow so let’s see if we can make that long story relatively short.


Adam: Take your time.


Ian: I did my growing up years in the 60s and 70s and it was in suburban America. But I was blessed with relatively alternative parents. So when I was 10 years old my father helped me build a solar greenhouse because I was in love with growing things and I still am. Not too long after my mom and I tore the grass out of our front yard and planted potatoes and apple trees. And later on we had a solar hot water system. So that sort of alternative thinking came pretty early for me. I grew up with the Mother Earth News. I grew up as a young teen knowing I wanted to live a rural lifestyle, raise a family closer to nature. And then in the early 80s I bought off grid property. That’s a little quick history. My earliest renewable energy guru was Windy Dankoff out of New Mexico and he held my hand while I learned about renewable technologies, as you’ll read in the next issue of Home Power. In 1987 something pretty amazing happened to me and a lot of other off-grid people. And that’s when we received the first issue of Home Power magazine. If you can imagine an era when the Internet didn’t exist, and there were a number of us out there in the boonies using renewables but we didn’t have very much connection with each other. Then in our mailbox landed this publication that said, ‘hey! there are other people doing this’ and there are other people I can ask questions and share experiences with. It was really groundbreaking. It was an amazing thing and it’s very present for me now because I just wrote the memorial for our founder Richard Perez who died a couple of weeks ago.


Adam: I’m sorry.


Ian: We are pretty grateful for what he and his partner Karen did for the renewable energy world. So that’s a piece of my journey.


Adam:  And that’s really what I would like to talk about. Something that you hit on as well is off-grid and off-grid living. So could you start off with defining off grid for us?


Ian: It’s a really good question Adam because I think a lot of people say off-grid and some of them mean that technically they want to be disconnected from the utility grid but many of them just mean they want to be renewably powered. I like to get clear with my clients and my students and my readers whether we’re literally talking about not being connected to the utility electrical grid or whether we want to use renewables. I didn’t have any driving desire to never be connected when I first got into renewables but I bought this piece of property I’m sitting on with all the money I had for the down payment. I went to the local utility and they said they wanted $7000 to bring the grid in. I thought, ‘It might be years before I have $7000 again!’ and started down a road of a battery and a few tail light bulbs and bought my first wind generator and solar electric modules in 1984 when they were still quite new and expensive. To this day I have continued to choose to not connect to the utility grid. I’m connected to the propane grid. A truck comes in here about every two years and it fills the tank for our backup generator and a few other things we use it for. I’m connected to the Internet. Talking to you I have a phone line underground. I no longer use the hard line. I’m connected to various grids but not the local electrical utility. And that’s not the choice I recommend for most of my readers or students or clients.


Adam: I’m interested in this. I really want to emphasize this to our audience. So why do you say that Ian?


Ian:  Sure. So I like stories and here are a couple. The two prominent solar and wind clients of mine on this island who were off-grid initially and it was the right choice initially for them because of the cost of line extension. Their line extension at the time would have been in the twenty five or thirty thousand dollar range to bring in the local utility and have the privilege of getting a bill every month. One of these clients instead invested in the range of $75000. The other one, probably about in the same range, to build a substantial wind and solar electric system. And both of these clients lived part time on one of them, full time for awhile with these systems and they functioned just fine. But what they learned is that when they had a surplus they were throwing it away. And when they had a shortage, they had to run a fossil fuel generator. Both of them had environmental motivations. It wasn’t about dollars to them. It was about having clean energy. They both over time realized that by connecting to the grid, and they negotiated a better price for bringing the grid in by the time they did it, all of their surplus could be used. It would be put back onto the grid, essentially used by their neighbors, and they would be credited for it. So essentially they could eliminate their need for a generator because they still have battery banks. There’s a grid outage. They’re still covered but they don’t need to overbuild their system the way off-grid people do. Any well designed off grid system will have a surplus. More than half of the time there’ll be a surplus. Every summer day I have a surplus.


Adam: So tell our audience what exactly you mean by a surplus of energy when you’re off-grid with a battery bank.


Ian:  When you have the sun shining on your solar electric array, the wind’s blowing your wind turbines, whatever other sources you have are generating electricity. And they’re fulfilling all of your present needs. Your house is lit up, your washer is going, your water pump is working, your computers are all being powered, and your battery bank is full. At that point you have a surplus. As a hands on off-grid person, I’m looking for a way to use that surplus. I’ll say ‘Oh! Time to do laundry. Turn on the hot tub filter pump. Oh, let’s get out the electric chainsaw.’ But there’s only so much you can do with that.


Adam:  (laughing)


Ian: I mean I’m about to have a mini split heat pump installed in my off-grid home which is unheard of really. But it will only operate when I have a surplus and then it will offset wood heat. I won’t have to use as much wood. So my clients who did connect to the grid every single kilowatt hour they make is used and they are credited for it. Because when their battery bank’s full and when all their loads are fulfilled, their surplus is just sent back through the meter. It essentially turns their meter backwards and they get a credit. And the next night the next calm day when they need energy they can buy it from the grid. So they’re maximizing the use of the renewable energy. And this assumes that the local utility has favorable policies that don’t make it difficult or expensive to interconnect.


Adam:  Do you currently find it a problem with certain clients or with the utilities that you work with? I know in the past as a builder the electric co-ops/utilities were becoming less cooperative and their argument was/is that you’re not contributing to the maintenance of the grid as their other users are. So now we have a shortfall of money. What is your response of that or what have you heard utility companies say in the past to you or whoever?


Ian:  Well I’m blessed to have primarily worked with one large utility here which is very open to renewables. They make noises once in awhile about what will happen if there’s too much and even now the incentive program is backing off a little because of the number of systems out there. But absolutely there’s pushback from lots of utilities all over the country and frankly net metering, this policy that says that the utility has to accept my surplus at retail- That’s not a sustainable policy! That can’t go all the way. That’s like taking a homegrown cabbage to your local grocery and saying, ‘Hey! Pay me retail!’ Then you sell it at retail. That just doesn’t work as a business model. So we have a monopoly utility. We have a policy that’s trying to address the inequity and try to promote renewables but long term it isn’t a sustainable solution. We have to find a way to compensate all the parties involved. That’s a big political question. There are places where people are deciding to go off-grid because the local utility policy is not favorable and does make it expensive or difficult to interconnect. And we are seeing the utilities separate generation costs from transmission costs and seeing utilities raising the basic monthly rate on customers and it is not my favorite topic, I must tell you, the politics of it. And again I am blessed to live in a place where the utilities so far has been very receptive. I think in some ways the cat’s out of the bag and the utilities are not going to be able to push back too far when the public realizes hey I can make my own electricity, and in the end I could decide to go off-grid and say the heck with you. There’s going to have to be a negotiation and some agreement that gives consumers a fair shake and utilities a fair shake. I’m going to say one last political thing, the utilities have a sweetheart deal. They have a monopoly. They have mandated profits and they’re trying to protect something that is inherently unfair. What’s really needed in my opinion is competition. We need choices in energy and we can say ‘Oh how could you do that with electricity.’ But we would find many ways to do that if we had the option. We see it today in telephone service. We get better products and better service when we have choice.


Adam:  Sure. Sure. So you’re telling us you don’t feel sorry for the utility companies, Ian. (laughing)


Ian:  Not one bit. When they say someone has to pay for it, it’s like, yeah you were given this monopoly. You were given this sweetheart deal. It’s ingrained in our governmental structure that you get this business. Who else gets that? I don’t get that as a consultant. You don’t get that as a builder. It’s as if there’s one builder for my island and that’s the only person who can build here. Of course they’re going to make good money on it. It’s a silly structure. It doesn’t bring out the best in people or companies or products or service.


Adam:  And so Ian, let’s even back up a little bit. I’m going to change courses here a little bit. How are you defining renewable energies? Tell us tell us about it. What do you mean by renewable energies?


Ian:  It’s a good question. I’ve got to look at it because people say clean coal and people say nuclear is renewable. There are two things that I would say define renewable to me. One is that it’s naturally recurring. There’s no bumper sticker in our industry that says Free Fuel Deliveries Daily! …That’s the sunshine. That’s the sun coming up. So it’s naturally recurring without cost and it doesn’t damage. That isn’t inherent in the word renewable but to me it’s inherent in the concept of renewable energy that it’s clean. It’s not leaving waste behind. It’s not leaving things worse than we found them. And so there is no way in my world that I can call nuclear energy or coal renewable, or natural gas. We can compare those dirty energies. We can say this is a little better than that one. But they’re all dirty. They all have lots of fuel costs and they all have damage. This isn’t to say that renewables have no cost and no damage. The equipment to capture renewable energy has a significant cost. Everything has an impact. If we want no impact, we should quickly dig our grave and jump into it because we have an impact by living here. And even the best renewable energy has had some impact but compared to dirty energy, very minor impact.


Adam:  Characterize solar, wind, hydro energy and any other energy you think, specific energy that falls into your definition of renewable energies that you want to touch on. Characterize those for us for a minute here Ian.


Ian: Sure. So those are the three big ones when we get to electricity for sure. The only thing I would add in the bigger energy picture is biomass, burning wood, heat from things rotting and burning. In electricity technologies the big ones are solar electricity, wind electricity and hydro electricity. And it’s good to look back at the resources and say, ‘Well where do we have these resources?’ And I would say most people have access to good sunshine. Not everyone, but most people. Few people have access to really good wind, easily accessible good wind resources. Very few people have access to hydro resource. And when we’re talking about hydro we’re talking about falling water. I’m looking out at my pond, it’s beautiful, I swim in it. It has ducks in it occasionally. It is not an energy source. What’s an energy source is falling water. So we need to be looking for water running down a hill that we can capture. It’s a fantastic resource. But actually very very few people have it on their property. So those on the electricity side and I would say heating; water heating we can use all three of those for space heating/water heating but we can also use sunshine, directly passive solar gain. We can use it for solar cooking as a direct resource. We can heat water directly with sunshine.


Adam:  So take for example I come to you and I say ‘Ian, I want an off the grid home and I don’t really know anything. Or, I’m familiar with renewable energies. I live in, say, the Pacific Northwest where you live. So a comparable climate. How do you start the process? What are the considerations that you want me as a potential client to think about?


Ian:  The very first thing I ask every client is, ‘Why did you hire me?’ What I’m trying to get at is, ‘What’s your motivation here? Why is renewable energy on your radar or your list when you’re contemplating building a home or you have a home? Why am I in the world with you?’ I’m a renewable energy promoter and expert. And I want to know why. That why question flavors my advice. It flavors whether I’ll say, ‘No don’t do this,’ or ‘Yeah let’s go.’ It flavors what specific advice I’m going to give you about resources and about technology and about system design. I would say a large portion of my clientele is environmentally motivated. I kind of push a little on my clients and say, ‘Well what do you mean by that? How environmental?’ Actually another category is cost. I have clients who are interested in renewables to save money. I find pretty often that when I push on that one that underneath it is the environmental motivation as well. And and so I guess it can be useful just to go ahead and list other categories. Some people come at renewable energy for independence. They want to be off-grid. They want to be disconnected. They want to grow their own food, they want to grow their own energy. Other people do it from sort of a hobby motivation. This could be, sort of, do-it-yourselfers. But it also can be people who want cutting edge technology. That’s their thing and it plays into what I call the cool factor. I think it’s the motivation that we really haven’t sold well to in our industry. But it’s perhaps the biggest potential to me. People who just want to do it because it’s neat! We’ve gotten ourselves stuck in talking about the dollars and talking about the environment. Just say hey! this just makes sense and it’s really fun and it’s cool and so many of our purchases in this funny modern world we live in are based on just what we think is cool. What we like, our cars, our bikes, our tools, our computers. We want them to do a job of course. There’s a big part of it that’s how it makes us feel. What we enjoy; the shirt on my back is not just about function. So when I’m sitting down with a client I want to kind of put them in a little bit of a box or find out which box they are in just because it affects the advice I’m going to give them. Another part of this for me is I find that people sell best to their motivations they agree with. But my endeavor is to be able to promote renewables to everyone. If there’s someone who doesn’t care about the environment, I happen to personally, but doesn’t care, I still would like to help them get what they want and promote what I want.


Adam:  You’re still helping the environment, ultimately. Regardless of their motivations, is what you’re saying.


Ian:  Absolutely! I think too often we get stuck in preaching mode where we’re trying to change motivations instead of trying to share what we’re excited about and help people get what they’re excited about. I have a big client right now that I just recommended natural gas hot water. I recommended it because solar wasn’t a good option for them I knew they were going to choose that. They already were using natural gas and now I’m helping them to use less of it. So I’m playing to their cost motivation. Well I tell them right up front, ‘Hey, I’m not a fan of natural gas and I wish we didn’t have to use it for this. But in your situation with your motivations it’s the best angle.’ So motivation is number one. A lot of people want to jump right to the renewable technologies. Let’s talk about those solar electric arrays. Let’s talk about that wind generator. But really the next move is to figure out how they are using energy now. How much and what types of energy they’re using. Energy analysis is the next step. And if it’s electricity we’re talking about how many kilowatt hours a day they use. If it’s gas we’re talking about how many gallons of propane or how many therms of natural gas. We’re trying to make an inventory of what these people are using. There’s a side task there of energy literacy. Because most people in our modern culture can tell you roughly what a gallon of gas costs this month and they can tell you roughly how far it’ll take them. But if you ask them what electricity costs and what units it’s sold in, most of them are not literate. They’re fairly clueless about their energy use and their energy costs. They turn on lights, they turn on all their stuff and at the end of the month they get a bill and they say, ‘Oh my goodness why is it so big.’ And then they pay it and they go back to doing the same thing. So there’s a lack of literacy and there’s a lack of knowledge about how they’re using energy. And one of my tasks is to try to help people within the limits of their interest to educate themselves about energy and about where in their house they’re using it. And again there’s an effort at this point. ‘Oh let’s talk about the solar electric arrays! Let’s get a wind generator up! Let’s get an electric vehicle!’ No! let’s talk about how we can use less energy. So step step number three after motivations and energy analysis is energy efficiency and seeing if there are ways that we can reduce the need for energy without reducing the benefits, without reducing the features, the product we want in the end. I tend to be a person who would rather live more simply. But I have clients from very very poor people in Central America to very very wealthy people in the Pacific Northwest and I’m doing a similar job in trying to say, ‘Well how can we get you the things you want for the least environmental and financial price?’


Adam:  So scenario! Where does the conversation go: you and I are standing on my piece of property in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve got five acres. I’ve got $18,000 to spend on renewable energy. In my heart of hearts I want to be off-grid. It’s for environmental reasons among others. Where does the conversation go from there. And also in the evaluation of the piece of property that I have and what’s appropriate for me.


Ian:  Sure. Great question. First of all I ask the dollars question before I even set foot on the property because I don’t want to waste people’s time or my time and their money on my services. If I get a client that says I have $10,000 and I want to go off-grid with my modern home, I just say, ‘Hey, you’re being unrealistic. We are just not going to do that for that kind of money. The average solar electric system I sell is at least double that and it isn’t necessarily making people net zero let alone off-grid. So it’s good that you mentioned the money. I like to get an idea up front with my clients. How much do you have to spend on your energy picture so we can come right into it with some realism. Then once we’ve done this energy analysis so we know how much energy they need or want and we’ve done some preliminary conversation about energy efficiency and get some idea- Can we reduce that number? Because if you tell me you’re using 40 kilowatt hours a day for your home, I’m going to give you a dollar’s number and you’re going to say oh my God and that’s actually very early in my process. I try to get a look at their energy bills or their energy projections if it’s new. And then just do some really quick math to say, well if we want to do this all with solar electricity on this site, it’s going to cost you you know $75,000 for this or whatever it is. And they go, ‘Eeek!’ And then I say OK now can we go back to talking about energy efficiency?


Adam:  (laughing)


Ian:  Because if we can cut that number in half on your energy use, I can cut the dollars in half. We do have to get that level of literacy and honesty about the energy use. People frequently will ask me the big general question, ‘Well how much is it going to cost to go solar?’ And I say ‘Well how much do you use?’ And they say, ‘Oh, we use a lot!’ And I say ‘Well it’s going to cost a lot.’ They say, ‘No no no I want it in dollars.’ And I say, ‘Well I want it in kilowatt hours!’ We have to get specific about the energy use. But you asked about- We do get outside. We get away from the kitchen table and we go up on the roof maybe, or I might even climb a tree just to look at a wind site. We might walk up a hill and look at a stream. We might spend half a day measuring a streams flow and vertical drop. Depending on the complexity of the site, a site analysis can take five minutes or a few days. If it’s a wide open site and has lots of sunshine, and we’ve ruled with no falling water and we’ve ruled out wind, there’s my site analysis. I have full solar access. Where are we going to put it? If it’s in the woods we’re going to use some sort of a siting tool. My favorite is the oldest out there, the Solar Pathfinder, still a wonderful tool. They make electronic versions now but I still use a non-electronic tool that I can stand on a site on the ground or on a roof or on a ladder or in a tree and it will tell me what hours of the day/ months of the year this spot is seeing sunshine and when it’s shaded. That gives me an idea of how good a site it is. I would say a fairly small percentage of my sites that I look at, maybe 10 to 15 percent, I just say ‘No, this just isn’t worth it. We we have too much shading. You don’t have control of those trees or you’re not willing to cut those trees. There’s a hillside in your way- your neighbor’s barn is in your way. We just don’t have enough sunshine on your side. But in most cases we can find someplace where we can capture some solar energy. Wind is another matter and wind is an area I have some expertise in but I tend to talk most of my clients out of it because the cost of solar electric systems has come down so dramatically. And solar electric systems are so reliable, that wind, which I’ve lived with for more than 30 years, I love, but it takes maintenance. And things break. You must be up on tall towers above everything else to make it work. Which means, especially where I live in the Pacific Northwest, it means very tall towers. A few weeks ago I was up on 170 foot tower removing a machine for repair.


Adam:  Why are they so tall, Ian?


Ian:  You must be above all obstructions within a reasonable distance, are kind of standard rule of thumb. You need to be 30 feet above anything within 500 feet. But that’s a little simplistic but it’s a good thing to keep in mind. The wind resource near the ground in most places is just not significant. You may feel wind. All you need to do is climb a tower and every single time I’ve taken students or friends or clients up a tower they say, ‘Oh my goodness! It’s cold and windy up here!’ It’s like, ‘Yes. That’s why we put them up here.’ Because there is a real resource up here and the wind that we feel on the ground is very small in comparison and is very turbulent. Even when we have sites that you could put a machine on the beach front or on the tundra…if we keep it down near the surface, it’s going to be turbulent. The wind increases as we move away from the Earth and it’s ground clutter. We’re getting away from the friction of the Earth and we’re getting into real clean wind that’s worth capturing. My two towers are at 150 feet and counting. My trees are growing and it’s over these years I’m seeing less production. If I were starting today, I would put up a 200 foot tower on the site.


Adam:  So you had mentioned the decline in pricing for solar and how dependable it is. Is it fair to say if you had, just to try to create some kind of apples, if you have a site that’s super wind friendly, it wasn’t anything extraordinary, a small residential application, what am I paying per kilowatt to install wind power as compared to solar power- per kilowatt?


Ian:  So this is very much an apples and oranges comparison and one that I would never make. When we talk about a kilowatt of PV we’re talking about it’s rated capacity. It’s actually a designation of how it’s tested in the factory at 1000 watts per square meter of insulation of sunshine at 25 degrees C. We actually can make very good predictions of what that one KW, one kilowatt array will do on a specific site. We have data all over the world of how much sunshine falls on a spot. In other words, weather data. We have data that tells us how much shading we have from trees and hills. The solar electric arrays are very predictable from their rated capacity. When we say a 1 kilowatt wind generator we’re actually saying something very different.


Adam:  OK.


Ian:  We’re talking about how much it generates at its peak wind speed. That peak wind speed first of all could be 22 miles per hour. That would be a nice number. But it could also be 42 miles per hour depending on how the manufacturer rates it. There’s more and more standardization. When we look at wind turbines out there, they’re 1 kw rating isn’t really directly connected with their energy output. It’s just their peak. The biggest difference with wind is that wind is a cubic resource. When we say we double the amount of sunshine on array or on a solar hot water collector with double the amount of output, when you double the amount of wind, the wind speed on a wind turbine, you’re actually getting eight times the energy potential. It’s a cubic resource. So when we look at 4 miles per hour times 4 miles per hour times 4 miles per hour, we have 4 times 4 is 16 and 4 times 16 is 64. We have 64 units of energy. We’ll take 10 miles per hour and we have a thousand. So the ratio of the energy available between 4 miles per hour and then 10 miles per hour is 64 to 1000. I know this is a little complex and I’m getting into my area of expertise and I’m probably speaking over some of the audience’s head.


Adam:  It’s ok go.


Ian:  We’ll try to bring it back down. So that 1 kw wind turbine is generating 1 kw at a certain wind speed. Let’s say it’s generating at 28 miles per hour. Well at 14 miles per hour, half the speed, it’s generating an 8th of that one kw. It’s generating 125 watts or something. And the other piece of the puzzle you need to know to realize this is a completely apples and oranges comparison, is how often we get that peak wind speed. If it were rated at one kilowatt at 28 mph how often is it 28 mph? You think it’s 20 percent? 30 percent? It’s one or two percent of time on most sites.


Adam:  Wow.


Ian:  It’s very seldom that we’re seeing the peak wind speed. And of course it also depends on how tall is your tower? If your tower is inadequate it’s even less of the time. So comparing a one kilowatt wind turbine with a 1 kilowatt PV array is not a sensible comparison.


Adam:  Ok.


Ian:  What we need to know is how many kilowatt hours does the PV array give us, and how many kilowatt hours does the wind turbine give us? The PV array, to get that number, we need to know the rated capacity the array and we need to know how many peak sun hours. That’s a measure of the solar energy on a particular site in wind. We need to know the average wind speed and we need to go to the manufacturer and say, ‘How much? How much does your machine generate in a 12 mile per hour average wind speed?’ And then we have to decide whether we trust them. So it’s difficult to get a handle on what wind is going to do for us. It’s fairly easy to get a handle on what solar electricity is going to do for us.


Adam:  I’m also going to switch gears. You brought up Costa Rica and I think this would be super interesting to the audience. So tell us about the work that you do there and even as importantly I’d like you to also talk about the differences between projects in the developing world and the first world, which you had mentioned.


Ian:  Let’s say it’s been 14 or 15 years ago I started a program in a little rural village in Costa Rica and later worked for about 10 years in another village. And going down in a couple of weeks for a workshop! For the North American who come here our focus is learning about renewables. It’s learning about a different culture. We’re a project-based program. A couple of weeks from now, we’ll be installing 3 or 4 small solar electric systems for people who have never had electricity before in their lives. These are typically homes with dirt floors. If they have any light at all it’s a rag in a can of kerosene, literally. Or disposable flashlight batteries in a flashlight. Once in a while we run across people who’ve become creative and they’re charging a battery in their motorcycle and taking it out. Plugging their motorcycle into their home. These are very poor families. We’re bringing donated equipment and putting together systems with somewhere between a 10 watt and sometimes up to 60 or 80 watt PV module. Which is very small. It’s like what we might see on a system for yard lights. A little module.


Adam:  And is that your goal for these people when you install a 10 watt system? What is it for?


Ian:  Typically 2 to 4 lights and a cell phone charging plug, these days. In the early years no one had cell phones out there but now that’s the second thing they ask for. In the old days it used to be they asked for radio or sometimes can we have a TV because they knew their relatives in town had a TV. But nowadays it’s I want to charge my cell phone because cell phones are so ubiquitous now. So 2 to 5 lights, and we’re talking about LED lights that are in the 1 to 3 watt range but light up these homes very well and change their lives. It’s an amazing change. I wrote an editorial some years ago after working down there for a while and my editor at the magazine said this is a little rough. You’re saying that Americans are so wasteful. That’s the reality. Americans come to me and say, ‘Why is renewable energy so expensive?’ My answer is, ‘Because you use so much doggone energy!’ It’s not expensive down south to change someone’s life. For a few hundred dollars instead of some tens of thousands of dollars we can give them give them electricity. They’re they’re very grateful. I love the part of my program that connects people with people and helps North Americans see a very different lifestyle. My students tend to go back home saying oh my goodness, what are we doing up here? I kind of do preach to my friends and students down there, it’s like, don’t do what we’re doing! Because if you guys all do this in these developing world places, it’s going to be a mess. We aren’t very good examples up here of how to use energy. The people down there, we think of them as primitive. But they have a better lifestyle in many ways. They have more time to be with their families. They have more time to help and share and there’s much less pressure for them to be always working. It’s much easier to just drop into a conversation with people and if you need a hand, they’re there for you. To me it’s a blessing to be able to take this technology to them and help educate them. You asked me to compare North America?


Adam:  Yes.


Ian:  One of the beauties up here is that we have an infrastructure to maintain these systems. That’s the biggest challenge down there. People are not as technically knowledgeable. In the community I work in I have yet to have someone that’s in the business of following up on our work. Whereas up here if one of my clients with a $40,000 PV system has a problem, it’s a phone call away for help, from one of the installers I work with. So that’s challenging, the technical education. That pushes me towards simpler systems down there. But as far as the impact we have, I have a much bigger impact down there with much less investment. If anyone is interested in joining us there is still space in my group next month. It’s on my website and we have a great group from Appalachian State University coming in. We’ll learn a lot about renewable energy. About solar electricity in specific and get to go to some fun places. Sometimes we hike an hour, we wade across a river, we hike another hour with all of our equipment on our backs. It’s another world, to go into a remote home site where people are growing most of their food and help them jump over technology. They’re jumping over dirty technology! They don’t have to worry about the grid. There will be years before they even get the grid. They don’t have that question of whether they’re using clean electricity or not! They’re not using any. We’re bringing them the good stuff right off the bat. Their first exposure to electricity in their home is clean and the sun comes up every day and tops off their battery.


Adam:  That’s really beautiful work. It’s super inspiring. Again everyone is Ian’s website where you can find out more about this workshop. And for the last thought of the day, what are some of the renewable energy and sustainable building solutions to the ecological problems we face as humans today?


Ian:  I’ve listened to your podcast and the hair rises up on the back of my neck when I hear that sort of question because I think it comes down to a sort of a God complex. I’m not a god. I can’t design a system for everybody. I can’t decide how to solve our energy problems. I have a favorite little book by a wonderful man Leonard Reed, a book called I pencil and Leonard Reed wrote about how no one actually knows how to make a pencil. But it takes hundreds of people to know how to make a pencil. Because when you go back through into the materials someone has to know how to make the lead, someone else knows how to make the truck to bring the lead and someone has to know how to harvest the wood and the chainsaw etcetera, etcetera. It reminds me of another famous author, Dr. Seuss who wrote a book called If I ran the circus and I like to use that phrase if I were in the circus. And to me it’s a reminder to myself that I don’t run the circus that I can sit in my chair and decide how other people should live. What’s the solution to our energy problems when all I really can do is influence my own life and the people around me and my opinion is that every minute we spend trying to design a big picture solution for the whole world, is a minute we haven’t spent actually changing our own energy picture and the energy picture for the people around us. One of my favorite T-shirts in our industry says “we have the technology” and I think what we do. I’ve got modules on my roof that went up in 1984 and they’re still working. We have the technology. We’re not waiting for a new breakthrough. We’re waiting for each of us to make a choice about whether we’re going to live in a more sustainable way. Whether we’re going to leave our own little piece of this beautiful blue ball a little better or a little worse. And we’re all making compromises. None of us are perfect and none of us have a plan for anyone else. I think when we start to plan for others, we’re starting down the road toward war. We’re starting down the road towards pushing each other around. And I would much rather be an example. Be a resource than be anywhere near a nudge or a prod or a hammer to tell people how they should live. I hope that the way I live and the way I work is helpful to other people as they consider how they want to live and work. I would rather talk about what’s rewarding to me than what’s right for anyone else. And to me it’s rewarding to be sitting looking out at the sunshine and know that it’s heating my water, my batteries are full, that I harvested the wood that’s warming my house and my hot tub, that the wind is blowing a little and that’s charging my batteries a little more too. I’m looking out at the sun shining on the garden that still has food from last year in it and and there shall be more food planted in the next six weeks. It’s possible to live in a way that’s more connected to the land I’m living on. More connected to the neighborhood and less damaging, I think. We can quibble all day long about what’s damaging and what isn’t. But I think each of us have a choice in front of us and we can find wise people to help and find examples that we want to follow. I honor Richard and Karen Perez. I honor Windy Dankoff and the real old timers who helped me get into this renewable energy world and I hope I’ve helped a few people along the way myself.


Adam:  I want to urge our audience to check out Ian’s excellent books and articles. You can find Ian by going to his website at and Thanks Ian, for being on the show.


Ian:  My pleasure.


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