POWER STRUGGLE

Combine solar and electric grid the greenest?

rmccarthy@keynoter.comSeptember 5, 2012 

No Name Key resident John Bakke explains the solar setup at his Bimini Lane home. Bakke and his wife Mary want Keys Energy Services to bring in commercial electricity. They say it's a much greener method than using batteries and diesel generators. (Keynoter Photo by RYAN McCARTHY)

BY RYAN MCCARTHY — rmccarthy@keynoter.com

One of the countless long-running arguments on No Name Key is whether grid-tied solar energy systems are greener than the off-the-grid lifestyle residents have endured -- or thrived on, depending on whom you ask -- for many years.

On the quiet 1,000-acre Lower Keys island off Big Pine Key, where endangered Key deer lounge peacefully on streets and driveways, the argument is often made against encroaching upon pristine nature.

But owners of 32 of 43 homes on No Name have been trying desperately in recent years to bring commercial power to the island, which is free of all utilities. Residents have always desired power, but not necessarily the majority as is the case now.

Those residents make the argument that No Name Key as a green island is a fallacy -- and several local solar-energy experts agree that life there is anything but pristine.

Most said No Name residents are harnessing solar energy in the most inefficient way possible, relying on diesel-powered generators and batteries that leak and pollute the island.

A simplified explanation for how off-the-grid solar arrays work is that rooftop panels collect sunlight and transform it into electricity instead of heat. It's then banked in whatever battery setup homeowners have and distributed to the home via inverters.

But batteries stop collecting energy once they're full and drain naturally come nightfall. Many homes on No Name are empty most of the year, meaning systems constantly collect energy that never gets used.

Lynne Tejada is chief executive officer at Keys Energy Services, the Lower Keys utility No Name homeowners have petitioned on numerous occasions over the years to provide commercial electricity.

"I absolutely think interconnection for any solar system is the best way to go, especially for a home that might be vacant for months out of the year," she said. "In the summer months, it's producing kilowatt hours and it has nowhere to go other than storage, and that maxes out."

Tejada admits that what electricity No Name could sell back to the grid is a "very small amount," but says it's by far the "cleaner" option.

Efficiency

John Morris is a No Name Key resident since 1989 who runs two solar arrays, one in the Keys and a grid-tied system in Pompano Beach.

"You won't meet anyone more pro-solar than me, but I'm very much in favor of having commercial electricity on the island," he said.

Morris points to the efficiency of a grid-tied system and said he despises the use of batteries on the island.

"Batteries are awful in every way. They may leak and they're corrosive and high maintenance and you have to keep replacing them," he said.

A notable exception to the opinions above is Steven Grasley, co-founder of Solaria Design and Consulting Co. in Marathon. He doesn't mince words regarding solar systems on No Name, calling many "the biggest mish-mash of junk."

"There are shoestring systems out there since the '80s and other people that have systems designed by people ... that know what they're doing that work incredibly well," Grasley said.

First off, he strongly disagrees with the notion that batteries are toxic to the island.

"Everything is recyclable and it should be," Grasley said. "The generators are the biggest sin. They're inefficient and expensive."

Energy audit

Key Largo resident John Hammerstrom is a noted environmentalist and solar energy proponent. He's lobbied on behalf of the so-called "solar community" fronted by Putney on No Name.

Hammerstrom says that the roughly $650,000 already paid in full to Keys Energy Services to run commercial power lines to the island could have been used to upgrade inefficient solar arrays instead.

"If the grid is already there, it makes sense to connect to the grid, but to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to harvest pennies worth of excess solar energy is not very cost effective," he said.

"The first thing anybody needs to do when they consider upgrading their system is to make their home as energy efficient as possible," Hammerstrom said. That can be done through an energy audit.

But many homes on No Name have been around for years and weren't designed with solar power efficiency in mind. That includes the home of John and Mary Frances Bakke, who moved to No Name in 1997 believing commercial electricity was at least a possibility. "There was nothing at closing that ever said that you're going to be solar only," John Bakke said. Bakke's taught himself the ins and outs of solar living and runs a fairly efficient system with large Rolls Surrette batteries and a generator that cranks up automatically as needed. Many homes string together numerous golf-cart batteries and start a generator manually.

But, Bakke says, the system is inefficient because of its limitations. The batteries max out during the day and drain at night. He said he's run a generator for 13 hours per day in the heat of the summer.

"It's disgusting because really truly being solar, you're connected to the grid so when your batteries are full, you can send it back. That's like spilling gas on the ground. That would be stupid to do, but that's not?"

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