Letter Re: Photovoltaic Versus Diesel Power Generation for Homes and Retreats

I am taking the 10 Cent Challenge and have made a contribution. I have been reading SurvivalBlog for about a month and intend to keep making my contribution for the next foreseeable future..This is an awesome site.

I have been wanting a solar array to add to my survival plan, According to the calculations I need to have the capacity to produce about 1KW adjusted to .75 KW. In order to adequately provide for my housing needs, minimal water pumping, lighting, small appliances, computer, phones, network, some TV, battery charging , fans for sleeping.

We are in Mississippi along the coast. Yes we were victims of [Hurricane] Katrina and lost nearly everything. Our house was still standing, though wet and [we had] no electricity for over 6 weeks.

I digress. As part of our plan we have since Katrina installed two diesel powered generators and still have the old gas standby one still running well from pre-Katrina Days. The 4,500 watt gasoline generator burns about a gallon per hour more or less when running to keep the water pumped, and make life reasonably tolerable.

We installed a bank of batteries, rated 990 amps of 12V at full charge, on an inverter/charger, (3KW/6KW 100 amp @12V). Re-charging them is simultaneous when running the generator.

One of the generators is a single cylinder 6HPrated Lister clone diesel ($950) which runs at a very low 650 RPM . It is connected to a 10 HP single phase generator ($689) and produces up to 39 amps of 115 VAC (about 8,900 watts) while only using about a 1?4 gallon of diesel per hour. This one runs whenever we need to recharge the batteries or during the summer months during the heat of the day when we need to air condition to make the house habitable. Did I mention we are on the coast in Mississippi? ( 95 degree days with 90% humidity.)

Our other generator is a 28 HP 15KW diesel monster ($2100) and it produces 72 amps of 230V while burning about 3/4 gallon per hour. It is only used when I need to do some heavy duty welding and not disrupt the smiling partner. (Note to all,– it is extremely important to keep your partner smiling).

While extremely fuel efficient ($ about 0.07 per KWH) the diesels do require to be fed and maintained. Except for the summer months, they run only for about 5 hours per day, doing the washing, pumping, and charging up the batteries for the overnight span. Overnight the only loads are the TV for a couple of hours, the computers and associated networking for a couple of hours, refrigerator, lighting , well pump and the ceiling fans in 3 bedrooms for sleeping. This works very well, and we are able to run most months on less than a barrel of diesel (50 gallons at $2.37 in today’s prices = $118.50). Our electric bill Pre- Katrina averaged over $250 per month. In effect we have achieved survivability and lowered our cost of utilities.

While the cost of our home grown electricity is low, on the down side, there is the noise factor and the constant cost of diesel , Thus I have researched extensively the Holy Grail of energy production, meaning Solar. Once in place the solar system requires no feeding (read $0.00) and very little maintenance. Where, oh where are the low cost solar photovoltaic (PV) panels?

The best I can come up with to generate up to ( note this is not a fixed number but is hopeful peak value) 900 – 1000 watts per hour of sunlight, is a cost of about $3,980 for materials.

Here in Mississippi we get 1,664 hours of PV usable sunlight per year. This sunlight would generate, hopefully 1,497 KWH at 90% efficiency. At current rates, and assuming no battery failures or charge controller failures or inverter failures (quite a few “ifs” in there) it takes a long 22 years and 2 months for break even. (Hopefully the system will last that long).

Sorry , but I am not quite that long-term oriented. I believe the best bang for my dollar is putting the same money into diesel storage (at today’s prices = 1,679 gallons) so that in the event of a TEOTWAWKI I will be able to maintain just as I am for about 38 months, or by stretching and economizing can survive for up to five years on this diesel.

What am I missing here? I know a lot of the puzzle is still missing , but where oh where are the low cost panels so that one could begin generating solar electricity for a reasonable cost of $1.00 per watt which will allow a payback within 5 years, or better still $0.50 per watt that would allow us to recover the cost within 30 months?

As for me, I am purchasing clean used 55 gallon drums without a removable top, for $5.00 each and am in the process of making the run every few days to the fuel depot to get the $2.37 /gallon off road diesel. Cached securely these will provide for our family and give great barter potential in an extended SHTF situation. Thanks, – L.W.

JWR Replies: The best prices that I have found on PV panels and inverters are from Ready Made Resources. They have some brand new panels at around $5.00 per watt. They also offer free consulting on alternative power system design.