Solar Power Mitigates Life Off the Grid

Ideas and Issues

IMG_5588Rock Creek   When I began camping many years ago with the Boy Scouts, we learned and mastered arcane skills like how to start a fire with a piece of flint, striking until a spark lit the pine straw, how to send messages with Morse Code if lost, how to find true north in the deepest forest or when the night sky was obscured by clouds, the direction moss was growing on a tree, how to make shelter of anything handy, and other skills I wonder if anyone much remembers or bothers with anymore.  Camping in those days was so primitive that we had no notion of something being “off-the-grid.” 

            Rock Creek, Montana is off the grid in the modern sense.  It’s hardly the heart of darkness.   Missoula is less than an hour away, but when you steer the truck west along Rock Creek Road, you immediately lose any hint of cell phone coverage.  Wireless, forget about it!

            Having parked one of my post-Katrina Airstreams 24 miles up the Creek in 2010, the urge to civilize in small ways is ever present, especially since I began to think, if I could just figure out a way to keep my computer powered up, and somehow access the internet out here, then by god I could work and stay on the Creek longer than my odd week of vacation in the summer.

            Solar power sneaks up on you.   First my son gave me a small device for a birthday that was hardly larger than a 3 by 5 inch index card, instructing me to leave it on my dashboard, and it would charge up a cell phone by the time we reached I-90.  A couple of years later a small solar panel the size of tablet of paper produced 5 watts, which when connected to a marine 12-volt battery brought lights to the trailer on all but the cloudiest days.  Last year a trip to town earned me a larger solar panel that came tantalizingly close to juicing the computer, but the power inverter whirred away on this 1978 Airstream without producing the current the computer requires.    A ridiculous advertisement in Field and Stream for a $1000 solar system led me to query my madly skilled friend and fellow Rock Creek compatriot, Bergamin Fortunato, about the ad and whether or not something might be possible with a larger system.  He scoffed at the ad, and said he would study the problem

            Weeks ago thanks to Bergamin’s ingenuity and ground-level research at a place called Harbor Freight in Missuola there came an email with his “buy” recommendation saying essentially “do this, and it will work.”  While in Toronto I called Harbor Freight’s Missoula store, was directed to their California 800#, and thanks to another friend in Missoula willing to take delivery, upon arriving in Montana I picked up a “Thunderbolt Magnum Solar,” as it was called, which delivers 45 watts of juice and a power inverter all of which had cost me $216, one buck less than Bergamin had predicted.  Add a $90 Marine battery for the sun to keep cooking, and I was almost in business.

            I’ve got a few rules about work.  I’ll paint without thinking about it.  I’ve done enough carpentry, sheetrock, flooring, and the like to build out two attics and a host of other projects.  I’ll do basic plumbing because I’m reasonably confident that I won’t drown if I make a mistake and neither will others, but I’ve always drawn the line at most electrical work, mainly because I’m not willing to have a bonehead mistake fry me for the ants dinner.  All of which is to say that I have approached this project with trepidation.    Nonetheless after two hours of work this morning, including great help from my companera on the rock-work, with a minimum of cursing, and only one slight, correctable error, I’m sitting here in the Silver Bullet, as we call this Airstream, typing away on my computer on a Monday afternoon feeling like the future is opening up ahead of me.  The charge controller is reading 13.2 so we’re rolling, and the computer says 100% of power.

            Now I’m left with two questions.  The least of which is whether or not the deal we’ve made for me to walk a half-mile, sit on a fella’s porch, and use his internet over the month will really work out based on how well his solar panels are keeping his internet on-line?  The most important of which is given how straight forward this is:  why don’t we use a whole lot more solar power everywhere that folks are still off-the-grid and a bunch more places where they still are sucking up diminishing natural resources?

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