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Archive for October, 2014

Getting our solar array constructed and connected was a lot like seeing an avalanche set in motion.   At first, just a few balls of snow break off a cornice and start falling down the mountainside.   As they gain momentum and pick up a little more snow, the slide becomes larger and more noticeable.   Suddenly, a huge mass of snow breaks loose, and running faster and faster down the slope it finally crashes to a stop in the valley below. While the installation of our panels was nothing like the destructive power of an avalanche, the way the whole thing happened was a lot like that.   First there were all the preliminary steps like moving dirt, cleaning up piles of wood and rock to do.   Then we decided that rather than put the inverters into a shop that needed refurbishing and then have to work around them, we would do the refurbishing first.   And then it seemed like the holes would never get dug. But once they were, the whole thing took on a life and momentum of its own and it was a positive dash to the finish. Last Thursday was the “witching hour” when our local utility company sent a crew out to replace our one meter service with the two meters required for grid tie solar.   Our own electrician was here too, to make the actual physical connection of the solar power to the meter. Here is the progression, in photographs. The solar array: DSCF0618 DSCF0627 DSCF0626 The pole: DSCF0625 DSCF0633 DSCF0630 DSCF0634 DSCF0636 Incidentally, I want to say a huge thank you to all the people who worked on this for us.   Our designer, Stan Kramer was an invaluable source of information and expertise, not to mention a power house of a worker on the physical labor side.   Our electrician, Harold Ewing was a true craftsman, efficient, and fun to talk to.   The crew from Laclede Electric that did the meter installation were also artists in electrical work, efficient, professional and pleasant. The inverters: DSCF0621 DSCF0637 The million volt lightning arrester (there are three, one per inverter and one at the meter): DSCF0622 The reason we have two inverters is because of the generating capacity of the solar array.   It turned out to be less costly to buy two smaller inverters and hook them into the grid in series than to buy one inverter with enough capacity to serve the whole array.  Each inverter has a panel that gives you information about how much power is being generated right at the moment you look, how much was generated each hour during the past hours, how many kilowatt hours you have generated that day, and then it also tells you how many megawatts have been generated since the system was operational. These are the two panels taken yesterday afternoon: DSCF0660 DSCF0661 So, of course the question always comes up as to how much did it all cost and was it worth it?  The total cost of the whole thing (not counting the improvements to the barn) came in just shy of $18,000.   We will be receiving a 30% tax credit for the system on our federal income tax.   That credit can be spread out over a couple of years because the caveat is you can’t make your tax bill less than zero. Yep.   That’s a lot of money.   But since the system has been running we have generated 125 kiloWatt hours of electricity.   That is in five and half days.  Two of those days were overcast and on one it actually rained.   The system still generated power that day. We are expecting a return on our investment of between 5 and 6 percent annually.    If that doesn’t sound like all that much to you, I invite you to investigate just how much interest you get on a savings account.   Around here they are paying 0.05% on a savings account.   Our stocks and mutual funds did not lose money this year, but they also did not earn anything.   So a guaranteed yearly ROI of 5% looks pretty good to us. Also, let me just point out that we don’t expect the price of electricity to be going down any time soon. (!)  Every time the rates go up, our ROI will get better. Plus, it is putting our money where our mouth is:  cutting back on our carbon footprint in a pretty big way.   That feels really good right now!

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Organic pest control

As an organic gardener, I am often faced with questions from conventional agriculturists about how I deal with pests.   The collective wisdom about this boils down to one essential fact.   If your plants are healthy and unstressed, they are not susceptible to insect pests.  You can find a long and scholarly dissertation on this subject in Eliot Coleman’s book “The New Organic Grower” in chapters 17 and 18.

To complicate matters further, insect pests are quite adaptable and will select over generations for behaviors and genetic makeup that make them resistant to the form of control being used.   Most of us are aware of how easily insects become resistant to chemical pesticides, but even insects controlled by use of sticky traps get selected for resistance.  The bugs that aren’t attracted to the traps reproduce and eventually you have a strain of insect that used to be controllable by use of sticky traps but is not any more.

So the bottom line in organic pest control is to make sure your plants are growing in as healthy and nutritious environment as possible.   The name of the game is COMPOST, one of nature’s true miracles.

That being said, when you reach the end of the growing season and the soil is depleted, or the day length and temperatures are not ideal, one often finds that the pests that have been absent most of the summer show up in droves.  And there are some things, like it or not, that just love to feast on healthy plants.  Flea beetles and cabbage looper butterfly larvae are notorious in this regard.

My favorite way of dealing with non-insect pests like deer and rabbits and rodents is a fine physical barrier.   Good fences make good neighbors, even when you are talking about animals that want to eat your veggies.  This shot shows our grand fence.   Waist high cedar planks topped with another three feet of chicken wire.

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This shot also shows the other physical barrier we use:  the floating row cover.   You can see the light plastic arches used to support the row cover above the plants.   You don’t have to use supports, the row cover is so light it will rest on the plants without hurting them, but I find that they grow better if they don’t have to push up against even that light cover.

The next photos show how the row cover looks when deployed.

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I use long pieces of rebar to hold the floating row cover down in the wind.   The rebar slips down neatly between the arch supports and the bed edge.

This is how broccoli that comes out of my garden looks.   Note the lack of damage to the leaves.  An additional benefit to the floating row cover is that it cuts down on the heat gain just enough that my broccoli produces side shoots all summer, even during the heat of July and August.

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So, how do I deal with the flush of herbivores when the conditions in the garden get less than optimum for the plants?  When they show up, I try to be vigilant and go out early in the morning when it is cool and pick the adults off execute them. As far as I know, there isn’t a bug species around that has developed resistance to being squished between a thumb and forefinger.

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Some people are squeamish about this, but I have found that there is a certain satisfaction to murdering bugs that are killing my plants.   Upon occasion, I have found myself musing about this process when I am in the middle of a big campaign.   One year there were thousands of harlequin beetles on my cleome plants.   I went about systematically killing them for several days before I finally gave up the battle and pulled the plants out.   When I did that, I would put a big black garbage bag over the plant and then pull them up by the roots, thereby entrapping the beetles within the garbage bag.  I sealed the bags up and stuck them out in the sun to broil.

While I was squashing the beetles, I thought about the millions of dollars women spend courtesy of the cosmetic industry in an effort to make their skin soft and wrinkle free.   “Hmm,” I thought to myself.   “If someone did a study that proved that rubbing harlequin beetle juice into the skin around your eyes and mouth prevented or cured wrinkles, I could charge people for the privilege of coming out here and smashing these bugs for me.”

Other than the entrapping within a plastic bag method, another method I find works wonders in killing bugs is the funeral pyre method.

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I build a good sized, very hot fire in the bonfire circle, and then pull infested plants and burn them.   You have to be careful and deliberate about this process, because you can smother the fire if you put too much green stuff on it at once.   Then you perforce become a charcoal maker.

This is why I sometimes burn infested plants.    There are too many of them to catch.   Or there are thousands of the tiny nymphs hiding everywhere.

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Worst of all is the egg deposits.  These are well hidden and hard to find.   I prefer to burn plants that have turned up with large populations of herbivores.   Composting does not always kill the eggs, and then when you put the compost out in the garden you have repopulated the pests.

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I also burn the refuse of plants that tend to be susceptible to fungi and bacterial blights, just to make sure that those things don’t get perpetuated in the garden.

All in all, I find a lot of satisfaction in the personal destruction of pests.   And frustrating the rabbits and deer is a lot of fun too.

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Going Solar (Part 2)

Clear back in June I wrote a post about our plans to put in a grid tie solar power system.   Since it is now October, you can imagine that a LOT of water has gone over the dam since then.   What I left you with at that time was a shot of the cleared off space where the solar power generating “plant” was going to be.

I mentioned that the barn needed to be refurbished, and that got done.   The “new” shop looks really good.   Although you can’t see the whole space, this picture of the new inverters gives you an idea of how it turned out after the old sheetrock and the trash got cleared away.  After that, we had insulation foam installed in the walls and ceiling of the shop room, covered that with sheet rock, and then textured that.  Then we painted.   Here are the inverters, on their lovely wall.

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Oh yeah.   Those are new, double paned insulated windows too.   Nearby is the wire that will run from the solar panels to the inverters.   This is scheduled to be pulled through the conduit and connected to the inverters on Monday.  All that cedar stacked around is the trim for the windows and doors of the shop.   Sometime that will be nailed back up.   Nobody is in any rush about that!  We have other fish to fry.

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Since I believe in the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” I am going to save a lot of time and verbiage by posting a series of pictures taken over the course of the summer, with a minimum of explanation.

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The next shot was taken during the digging of the holes for the frames.   The saw horses are stationed over the holes to keep people who walk around inthe dark (that would be me) from accidentally stumbling into them.   Shortly after this picture, the back hoe came and dug the big holes, which I neglected to document before they had frames and quikrete in them.

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The last picture is of the back of the panels showing how they are bolted to the frames.   In order to keep the aluminum frames from deteriorating, there is a nice stainless steel washer between every frame and the steel support structure.   It had something to do with bimetallic corrosion or galvanic corrosion or some such arcane magic thing.  Those washers were forever skittering away and hiding in the grass.   Fortunately, they were very inexpensive.

So that is where we were yesterday.

Today, this is what happened.  Starting from the power pole where the electric company will put their meter for the grid tie…

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Out around the sauna…

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And over to the barn…

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Right next to the barn where the power enters from the solar panels to go to the inverters, and then comes back out to go to the pole…

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The ditches near the barn…

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Now, you would think that that would be enough work for one day, wouldn’t you?   You would be wrong.   The crew proceeded to pull the wire through all that conduit you saw laid out there.   They glued the conduit.   Then the guy with the bobcat went along and pushed the dirt back into the ditches on top of the installed conduit, and tamped it down.

Here is a shot of the panels after most of that was done.   Notice the posts with conduit next to them.  That is where the junction boxes will go, and the wires from the panels will head off to the barn.

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The final result as of 3:30 p.m. today:

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We still have some back filling to do right by the barn, and around the posts that support the frames.

Need I say that there is a level of excitement around here that is very high???   I am stoked.   Jim is tired.  After all, he was out there working and pulling wire and spending money while I was doing five massages and watching the evolution in between.

We are SOOOOO close to having our grid tie solar power system up and operating we can almost taste it.

As they say in the Army,  “HOOAH!”

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