The Perfect Storm

By Bill Moore

Posted: 21 Jun 2011

Yesterday I was climbing around on the roof of my 40-year old tract home with a tape measure. The sun was shining brightly and the temperature was hovering in the mid-80s. Ten miles away at our new TD Ameritrade ballpark in downtown Omaha, the North Carolina Tarheels handed the Texas Longhorns their second defeat in the 2011 College World Series, sending them back to Austin. Both events would converge around 8 pm last night.

After preaching for a decade the need for us to use more solar energy to power electric cars -- and motivated by the historic flooding on the Missouri River that threatens to shut down another one of our power plants -- I figured it was time to at least get a sense of how many photovoltaic panels we could install on that portion of our roof that faces south. Hooking the end of my 25' tape measure to the edge of a 10+ year old asphalt shingle, I measured a triangle 30 feet along the base and twelve feet at the apex. While on the roof, I also discovered some deteriorating roof decking under the shingles. Homes are such a money pit!

Back on the ground, a search of eBay came up with brand new, U.S.-made Evergreen 200 watt PV panels costing -- without shipping -- $2 a watt. Translating my roof measurements into a 3/8 inch scale drawing, shows that I can mount nine of them, producing a maximum of 1,800 watts. The cost of the panels alone would be $3,600; shipping would add another $500. To this, I'd have to add a 2,000 watt inverter, a utility switch and other ancillary equipment.

Next, I emailed Kim Adelman, the founder and president of Plug In Conversions Corporation and asked him how difficult it would be to tap into the electric power stored in the battery of our Prius, which he converted to plug-in for us in October 2009. The car has a 6.1kWh battery pack, enough to provide some emergency back-up WHEN -- as it turned out -- not if we lost grid power. Kim called me back to explain that his current system, the one in our car, can't easily be tapped because there are no electronics to convert the energy back to 120 volt, 60 cycle AC current once it's converted to DC for storage in the NiMH battery pack.

But that being said, he told me, he's come up with a way to use the energy in his plug-in Prius, one that he's applied for a patent on. Since he already has a massive 12kW PV system mounted next to his home in the San Diego area, he simply found a way to trick his PV system's charge controller into thinking the battery pack was just another string of PV panels. Essentially he takes D.C. power -- though at a pretty high voltage -- and feeds it into his home power system, letting its DC-to-AC inverter convert it to usable electric power. It's brilliant really.

He also intimated that he has a new charger in the works for his conversion kit that will allow bi-directional charging, so there might be a solution for me that doesn't necessarily mean I also have to install a PV system, but then there are other reasons I'd want to do it, like offsetting the coal and (when its operational) nuclear-generated electricity used to recharge our plug-in Prius at night. Since my wife uses about 4 kWh a day for her commute, an 1,800 watt system should easily offset much of that, assuming we get at least 3 hours of sunshine. Any excess electricity we might generate can be feed into our local power grid at 'net metering' rates, reducing our overall power bill. The PV system could also raise the value of our home as much as $10,000.

All this remained purely theoretical yesterday afternoon. Then I turned on the Weather Channel and learned that we were in for a doozy of a night of storms as warm, moisture-laden air was being sucked north by a powerful low pressure system swirling away in northwestern Kansas.

With sirens wailing, 75 mph winds slammed into the Omaha metro area (see above Matt Miller photo taken during the Vanderbilt vs. Florida game at TD Ameritrade ballpark in downtown Omaha, near the flooding Missouri). Here in Papillion, the country seat south of Omaha, the lights went out for good at 8:24 PM. My wife searched for her stash of scented candles, while I looked for the crank-powered emergency radio/flashlight someone gave me years ago. My LED flashlight is said to have a operational life of up to 8 hours on a pair of D-cell batteries.

For the next two hours, we sat in the candle-lit dark listening to weather reports and classical music (Sibelius) from the local university FM station, and reflecting on the irony of our losing electric power -- it finally came back on after midnight -- on the very day I start thinking seriously about putting in an emergency electric power system, one that could use the batteries in our Plug In Conversions Corporation-converted Prius, power produced from the sun shining down the roof of our home every day.

With daylight, things have pretty much returned to normal. The power is on, the Internet is back, the violent storms well to our east. It would be tempting to write off the whole episode and sink back into grid-induced complacency, but now that I know how much power we could generate from the sun, and roughly how much it might cost -- assuming I do much of the work myself -- I don't think I can just dismiss the idea now; not when I read on that our second nuclear power plant, the Cooper station down at Brownsville, Nebraska, came within hours of shutting down due to rising flood waters. Last night's storm is part of a system this week that could dump as much as 5 inches of rain in the upper Missouri River basin, seriously complicating Army Corps of Engineer efforts to manage flooding.

No, I think I am going to seriously pursue finding a way to integrate both my plug-in Prius and solar PV into a system that, when needed -- not if -- can provide us with more than candle-power and D-cell battery back-up.

And one final irony; last night, AMC ran the George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg film, "The Perfect Storm."

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