Branscome solar panels
The Branscomes, with a home solar-energy station in Montrose, Colorado,
will be selling power to the local utility company by next spring
Photo: Jim and Sharen Branscome

While our government in Washington has been busy bailing out banks right and left, we’ve been busy doing our little thing to bail out utilities instead. Our little solar plant — we call it Branscome Power & Illuminating — is incredibly inconsequential compared to TARP, but we have no reason at present to think it is any less effective than what Hank and Ben are doing by dumping dollars on banks made insolvent by reckless lending. By our reckoning we have had not only the unequaled joy of receiving an electric bill for a mere $18, but also the good feeling that comes with calculating that we have saved the Earth the burden of figuring out where in the atmosphere to store another 3,201 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions that we have prevented some coal-fired steam plant somewhere from spewing out just since we went online October 7.

At the outset we don’t want to oversell the investment merits of what we are doing. Fact is that we two sixty-somethings will have to live to about 120 years old to recoup our capital unless inflation soars mightily in the next few years, but Hank and Ben are working tirelessly to ensure that we get that inflation and break even much younger. Delta-Montrose Electric Association, the little municipal electric cooperative that serves our area of western Colorado, is pretty excited that we’ve installed the largest residential solar plant in their extensive rural territory. So much so, in fact, that they have agreed to buy our output for the next twenty years, installed a “net-metering” device that runs backward when the sun is shining, and gotten us on the front page of our daily newspaper, the Montrose Daily Press.

zippy the rabbit
Dang! Zippy the cottontail thought they were putting in a banana plantation
Photo: Jim Branscome

The only disappointment we’ve noted is that one of our pet cottontail rabbits, the banana-eater named “Zippy,” thought all the construction activity was for a banana plantation. No reason for him to know that the mere eleven inches of precipitation we get here in the high desert of the San Juan Mountains won’t grow bananas at a rate competitive with the fifty-cent-a-pound ones down at Wal-Mart.

Actually there is one other little disappointment worth noting. That is that if you want to install the most efficient solar plant you have to buy the panels from Norway and the power inverters (from DC power to AC power) from Germany. Those purchases do not help the US balance of payments problem, but we’re sure our current president is at least pleased to know we didn’t have to buy any parts from France. And maybe our president in waiting will take notice and, once Detroit is properly bailed out, will spend some money on getting Yankee ingenuity bountifully to harvest the output of the sun overhead.

solar inverters

Two German-made inverters turn the solar DC power to AC
Photo: Jim and Sharen Branscome

BP&I’s plant statistics are pretty small at present, but Sharen is investigating a wind generator in between prayers for more sunshine. The plant is 10 kilowatt DC, capable of about 19,181 photovoltaic watts output per year. There are 48 solar panels, 210 watt each, from REC Corp. in Norway. The power is converted to AC for our use by two 5,100 watt inverters from Fronius Corp. of Germany. We calculate that this will supply 80-85% of the power demand for our 4,000 square foot home. The house was built in 2001 with geothermal assisted heat pumps, and we’ve decreased our power usage even further with CFL bulbs in every socket. We’ve also audited all our electric devices with a power meter to ensure that we have the most economic consumption that is feasible.

After 48 days of operation, we have generated 2.470 megawatt hours of power and saved ourselves $246 in power we didn’t have to buy from DMEA at ten cents per kwh. Given our higher energy usage for electric heat in winter, we’re at the moment $104 in the hole to DMEA because of some unusually cold nights recently. But come spring and summer, we’ll be in the “banking” business. That is, we’ll be selling excess power back to DMEA at the same ten cents per kwh they charge us.

Sharen Branscome

Sharen Branscome, CEO of BP&I, with solar panels from Norway
Photo: Jim Branscome

Due to unfortunate timing, our “bank” does not qualify for a bailout from Hank and Ben. Had we waited until the first of the coming year, we would have qualified for the tax credits that were “earmarked” into the TARP bill by someone in Congress. That is a missed “bailout” of some $25,000 instead of the measly tax credit we will get from the IRS of $2000 and the $3000 DMEA energy credit. Net we will have a $75,060 investment in BP&I.

The planning and construction process took us about six weeks total. We had two local contractors do a bid off and, once the more experienced one agreed to meet the less experienced one’s bid, we started construction that lasted about a month. All in all, not a bad experience. As retired people with not much to do, we spend a lot of time running outdoors to see how much power we’re generating. The rewards so far are mainly psychic, not economic, but as Sharen says, “It was the right thing to do.”

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