Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Solar power makes rural site livable

Hailey family goes solar for lack of options

Express Staff Writer

The arrays of solar panels at the Croy Canyon home of Scott and Kim Garvin produce power that heats water, powers an outdoor irrigation system and fuels every other aspect of energy-dependent life. Their sons, Lucas, 7, and Caleb, 10, love the family's off-the-grid lifestyle. Photo by Willy Cook

A dusty trail wound its way up the canyon, leading to a few dilapidated shacks that stood against the wind.

To Scott and Kim Garvin, they had just come home.

To be sure, there was no house yet on the property, west of Hailey, but the couple set about buying the land, building a road and starting anew.

"I've always been a country boy," Scott said. "We like the serenity. (From here) you don't see anything but the Smokys."

Also absent from view were modern life's amenities. Power lines stopped far short of the remote site, prompting a call to the utility company.

"The first thing we did was check on running power up the canyon," Scott said. "We had the mortgage; we financed the construction; but the power was the big variable."

In 1997, few houses existed in the canyons that stem off of Croy Creek Road.

Homebuilders can request connections to the power grid, said Idaho Power spokesman Dennis Lopez. A homeowner pays a portion of the expense—determined by how far lines have to go to the site. Then, as other homeowners come on to the grid, the first customer is gradually reimbursed.

Sticker shock—to the tune of $60,000, according to Scott—prompted the Garvins to conceive another plan.

The family—Scott, Kim and a 1-year old baby—lived in a 1972 Winnebago while they got to work.

"Oh my God, that was a scene," Kim said.

"We had no budget, no money at all," Scott said. "We figured we would make it happen. The whole thing was a hope and a prayer."

The first step was to erect solar panels so Scott could use power tools in the house's construction.

Idaho Power at the time had a program that helped rural customers access solar power.

"We had a demonstration program. We were working with individuals to design and develop solar systems," Lopez said. "At the time, we had a subsidiary that packaged and sold those systems."

Although the Garvins were able to buy solar panels, they had to do the work to install them.

"I'm a tile setter by trade," Scott said. "I had to learn the difference between an amp, a volt and a watt."

From the ground up, the family turned wrenches, raised walls and waited out the completion of its project.

In October 1998, they moved in.

While solar panels provide some of their electricity, they use propane as a backup energy source. And they carefully measure all their energy consumption.

"We're aware of what we use," he said. "Everything is high efficiency."

Kim, a dedicated and creative homemaker, set up in their new surroundings. But she soon found that quirks were going to be a part of everyday life.

A little refrigerator run on propane was enough to hold two days' supply of food. But, for Kim, the appliance held her back.

"One day, I came home and she had bought the biggest refrigerator known to man," Scott said.

A homecoming after a family trip one year should have brought a sigh of relief.

"We came off a 15-hour flight from somewhere and the whole thing had shut down," he said. "I thought about calling Idaho Power and giving them a couple of credit card numbers."

He fought the urge to get on the grid, but he's still struggling with the energy-consuming ambiance Kim creates in the home.

"I'm always leaving chandeliers on," Kim said, "and he's always behind me turning them off."

"There are some heated discussions here about energy use," Scott said.

"It's a way of life," he added. "It definitely isn't for everyone. But it's something we've learned to do."

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