Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Under the sun and off the grid

Solar projects have faithful adherents but remain rare

Express Staff Writer

The laminated solar panels on the roof of Scott and Ardath Kimmich's Hailey-area house are made of photovoltaic solar cells, which convert sunlight into electricity. It may look like a normal roof, but there are 40 separate panels that face "true solar south," which is 19 degrees east of magnetic south at this latitude. Photo by Willy Cook

Some people enjoy growing their own vegetables. Others relish the skill required to fashion their own clothes. Still others make time for pursuits such as candle- and soap-making.

One Hailey-area couple finds satisfaction in a more laborious—and expensive—pursuit.

"We've been making all our own electricity for seven years," said Scott Kimmich, who, with his wife, Ardath, bought a patented mine claim out Croy Canyon, west of Hailey, in 1990.

With the purchase of the property, the Kimmiches started to build a vision.

Using his understanding of engineering and energy, Scott went to work creating what he estimates as possibly the largest home in Idaho powered by the sun.

"I've been an alternative energy advocate and engineer for years," he said, standing in a well-appointed kitchen with expansive views of sage and sky.

"Ardath and I designed it," he said of the house. "I took care of the engineering details. She took care of the aesthetic details. Everything is designed to work together."

The Kimmiches themselves function symbiotically.

"My wife is the aesthetic police," Scott said. "If it was going to be solar, it had to be beautiful."

The house incorporates both active and passive solar energy techniques using design and materials rather than mechanics.

The Northwest receives more than enough sunlight to meet its entire annual power needs, according to Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland, Ore.-based coalition of public-interest organizations and energy companies.

Still, solar power is in its infancy in Idaho, in large part due to costs associated with large-scale production.

Idaho Power, which provides energy to much of the state, has identified some renewable energy sources as part of its Integrated Resources Plan, a 20-year needs assessment document. Solar, however, will not be a part of that.

"We could never justify a utility-scale (project)," said company spokesman Dennis Lopez. "It's too expensive. We're charged with providing customers with reliable and safe electricity. We balance that with lowest-cost resources. In the IRP, most are tried and true methods that have a proven lower cost, commercial viability and offer a reliable supply of electricity."

Idaho Power has been involved in some solar power projects and has solar panels on its Boise headquarters roof.

An offshoot of the company's Green Power program resulted in Idaho Power contracting in 2003 with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to assist the Idaho Rural Council and the Castleford School District to install six photovoltaic solar panels at Castleford School. It was the first project of its type in the state.

In the Kimmich household, nearly 99 percent of their energy comes from the sun.

The architectural laminated solar panels on their roof are made of photovoltaic solar cells, which convert sunlight into electricity.

Low-emittance windows are a passive solar aspect to the home's heating—and cooling.

The house is oriented toward the true solar south, allowing for maximum sun exposure in the winter months when its warm rays are needed most.

Straw-bale walls with super insulation protect against wind.

Radiant coils run through architectural concrete floors.

A clean-burning radiant masonry heater, with its long smoke flue path, also functions as a pizza oven.

"We only have one connection to the outside world, and that's the phone line," Scott said.

A trend in upscale homebuilding is the "smart house," in which computers allow automation of appliances, stereos, lighting and other creature comforts.

But the Kimmiches took a different tack.

"One of the approaches we took was the 'dumb house' approach," Scott said. "It's real low-tech in a sense. You don't want to be dependent on computers to turn on your lights and open your doors."

Despite solar's slow start, the idea could find a wider market.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced last month it would award $170 million for public-private development projects that would reduce the cost of electricity from solar photovoltaic systems.

Also last month, Palo Alto-Calif.-based Nanosolar, Inc. announced it will build a solar cell manufacturing facility that could produce enough solar cells in one year to generate 430 megawatts of power.

But with household chores waiting, the Kimmiches took alternative energy production—and a simultaneous consumption reduction—into their own hands.

Their washing machine takes a full load, but uses about a quarter of the electricity of normal washing machines and an even smaller fraction of water.

A top-compressor refrigerator and a low-water use dishwasher handle the work of large family get-togethers.

"High-efficiency appliances are part of the total picture of a house like this," Scott said.

"We have plenty of electricity," Ardath added, "as long as we balance the load."

Downstairs, off to the side of another radiant masonry heater, and partially hidden behind the family vehicle, a door opens to the house's beating heart.

"The secret to this whole house is the inverter," Scott said. "It's the power plant of the house."

A panel with digital controls, wires and cables and a box containing 3,200 pounds of batteries share space with typical garage items like a hammer and nails.

Electricity is created on the roof in the form of DC. It's then piped in through a charge controller where it's stored in batteries. Then the inverter pulls electricity from the batteries and inverts it to AC.

The batteries store power for later use, and a back-up generator ensures power in a pinch.

New technology allows a continuous stream of power to appliances.

"The lights aren't flickering, humming or buzzing," Scott said. "You have no unscheduled power outages living in a house like this."

Sounds do-able for some people. But what about the rest of us?

The Kimmiches say there are many lower-cost options to tackle energy consumption.

Set your house to the solar south (works best when the house hasn't been built yet). Insulate it better. Use blown-in cellulose as a cheaper alternative to other insulation. Buy energy-efficient appliances. Switch to compact fluorescent bulbs.

"The idea is, you don't have to live a Spartan lifestyle," he said. "We use, but we don't waste."

"This is an extreme example," he added. But, "everybody can make a contribution to energy independence by doing one thing."

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