Vision: How Switching to a Sustainable Lifestyle Can Make Financial Sense

Converting to alternative energy is a lifestyle choice that you won't regret.

In 2010, we converted a large shed and a small one to solar energy. Costs were $500 for the small system, $5,000 for the large. When showing a group around the other day, a young man asked about payback and, when I estimated 9-10 years at the current electric rates, he suggested that the conversion was a choice based on lifestyle rather than economics.

I might have answered that the conversion had something to do with supporting a technology that’s ready for prime time, or I might have said that the electric co-op rates will inevitably go up, probably doubling, making the payback more like 5 years, or I might have said something about the environment. And, if I had remembered, I could have mentioned that a tax rebate will help us with some of the costs, but, in truth, I didn’t have an answer. I should have confessed that the conversion to off-grid power for these two sheds was my New Year’s resolution.

As the calendar turned last winter, my friend Mark told me about Show-Me Solar, a new club that was teaching people how to use solar energy. I took the class, with amazing teacher Jeffrey Owen, and then invited them to convert our little harvest house (two lights, one fan, one power strip for rechargeable tools and a radio). They were delighted, and so was I. It has performed way better than we ever dreamed possible for a $500 investment.

Next on the calendar was the restoration of an old carriage shop. We needed it for vegetable storage, sorting and loading produce for shipment. This is just the latest of its reincarnations. From wagon building, to Model T garage, to feeding cattle in the winter, this building has done it all. We were using it in a small way as a storage shed, but the roof was leaking and the whole building fell completely off its foundation a couple of years ago. Still, the roof system is unique for our part of the country, and I knew it could be useful … after a lot of work, and the addition of electricity.

So, yes, we could have hooked up to the electric pole that runs about 30 feet from the building, but that would have meant grabbing more electricity from a long wire attached to a power plant, nuclear or coal. I met with the county electric co-op. Would it work to tie to the grid and sell them surplus power, if we produced any? We ran the numbers. Because of the way net metering is set up, requiring additional engineering and a monthly access fee, the system didn’t work out financially.

Jeffrey Owen had left town, but another Show-Me Solar director came to the rescue. Kevin Allemann assembled a terrific team of students, teachers and Rob Nix, a gifted and dedicated carpenter. Working with the roofers on the building, these guys assembled a system ten times the size of the first one. Part of the payoff was feeding lunch to the students who came from the Renewable Energy Training Institute (RETI) of St. Louis. They had never been on a farm, never eaten locally-raised food. Score!

The day they “went live” with the power, the roofers turned off their gas generator and plugged in every power tool in the truck. That brought another payoff — four good construction guys learning about solar energy.

So, yes, the conversion to alternative energy is a lifestyle choice. These two systems have delivered electricity — that was the goal — above and beyond what I expected. And, yes, we’ve run the batteries completely down by hooking a whole lot of stuff to them including a freezer and, yes, we’ll need to think about how we use these two sheds. But even after a complete depletion of the batteries and two days of clouds when the electricity just trickled back, the systems were restored fully after a couple of hours of sunshine.

It’s time for new resolutions. I can recommend going solar, or any other kind of lifestyle change. Learn something, educate others, explore possibilities and try something new.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English in Fulton, Mo. Email: [email protected].
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