Solar Eclipse From Vermont


The recent solar eclipse was a big deal all over the place. In the U.S. it was the big news, aside from the shenanigans in Washington. Here in Vermont we did not get to see totality. No moment of evening-in-the-middle-of-the-day for us. But we got a bit of a show nonetheless.

Early afternoon my lovely spouse set up a viewing station: four outdoor chairs facing south to see the sun, but on the edge of the shade. Just the right spot. Some cold drinks and snacks rounded out the event. All we needed were our special glasses.

We could have purchased some solar eclipse glasses, or goggles as we kept calling them, in plenty of time. By the time we got around to it, however, they were out of stock locally at the places we knew had carried them, so I went to the hardware store to see if they might have some. The woman working there did not answer directly but instead said “You can’t see the eclipse here.” I was happy to inform her that we, indeed, could see it, even though we would not get the total eclipse. She was happy to be, well, happy. She was really happy in fact. She said more than once to her colleague that she needed to go home, she was so excited. I don’t believe that was an option for her at that time.

My wife did order some glasses online, just in time. They were more expensive than the ones we missed by a day at the local toy store. Plus she had to order a pack of five. That, however, worked out well. There were four of us and, two days before the eclipse, I dropped one pair off at the hardware store for the clerk there. She hadn’t managed to find any yet. She was, again, pretty happy.

Out in the sunlight, on a perfect day to watch a solar eclipse, we donned our dark spectacles. Let me tell you, those things are dark. I was expecting them to be somewhat like sunglasses, only a little darker, but there was to be no walking around in those puppies. Eyes shaded, we looked up and exclaimed “Holy crap/Oh my god/No way/Whoa that is so cool!”  Variations of this exclamation were proclaimed several times by each of us.

And is was so cool. The disc of the sun getting partially covered by a round shadow does not sound like a lot of excitement. But seeing the sun, round and bright and just there day after day, disappear, even a little, was so different, so out of the everyday, so slowly dramatic, that we looked at it over and over and kept offering our amazement aloud to each other.

I was texting in real time with a friend in South Africa. He could not see the eclipse–not in the path and also night. I discovered the shadows on a chair in the photo above. Each spot of light through the leaves of the tree made its own little crescent shadow. It was an imperfect repeating pinhole viewer. I sent him that photo and it gave him a sense of the wonder of it. I tried hard to get photos of the eclipse itself, using instructions to do it safely and effectively, but failed in a big way. Memory will have to do.

After a couple of hours the moon and sun fell out of alignment. We picked up our empty beverage vessels, moved the chairs back to the porch, and got on with the rest of our summer day. It was a day to remember though. As shadows grew long we all headed out to town together for one thing or another and my wife looked over at the spot from which we had watched. “Remember that time we sat there and watched the solar eclipse?” she asked.

We sure did.


Harvest Festival

Harvest Festival Entrance

Harvest Festival Entrance

We took a trip across the town line to visit Shelburne Farms today.  They were hosting their annual harvest festival.  It was fun, literally, for the whole family.  I took the two kids last year and we spent most of the day there.  They were excited to visit again and this time Mom came along as well.  I was expecting many people to be there.  The place was packed when we arrived:

Full Parking Lot for the Harvest Festival

Full Parking Lot for the Harvest Festival

You can see the farm barn in the distance.  There were lots of cars.  Maybe that speaks to our car culture.  It also says something about how many people were there.  My guess is that few of those cars carried only one person.  There were families galore there.  This was because Jon Gailmor sang and there was a play (a musical version of Romeo and Juliet) put on by the teens of Very Merry Theater and there were all kinds of fun activities for kids of all ages.  The animals were all out and one could spin yarn and pet a llama and do a leaf rubbing.

Llama Ready for Petting

Llama Ready for Petting

And there was food, too.  Maple Wind Farm of Huntington was there, serving grassfed beef and pork kebabs and hot sausages.  Island Ice Cream offered seven different ice cream pops.  And the corn line was, as last year, worth waiting in.  They had a pick up set up just to toss in corn cobs for composting.  They dished out hundreds of fire roasted ears of corn.  The one I had was, no kidding, the best I had had all summer.  Damn tasty.

Roasting Corn

Roasting Corn

A Full Grill

A Full Grill

The Harvest Festival, for the second year, coincided with Green Mountain Power’s Energy Fair.  They had a tent set up where anyone present might learn about solar photovoltaics or wind power or solar hot water or LED light bulbs or energy efficiency of all stripes.  I love that fair.  Every year it convinces me that we should heat our water with solar energy and generate our electricity from the sun or wind.  If only it didn’t cost so much to install.  I did learn that we might expect to make money if we used solar for electricity.  We really don’t use that much compared to most homes.  But still, it is a big investment…

Energy Fair Tent

Energy Fair Tent

All in all we had a great time.  Corn, ice cream, caramel apples, a fine sunny day, lots of encounters with friends and neighbors, and a good feeling about where we live and the people who live here.  I hope Shelburne Farms keep doing it. Judging by the number of people there, my guess is that it was popular enough to repeat.  Count us in next time.  At this point, we’ll stay members, and we wouldn’t miss it next year.

Final Solar Class

I attended the last of three classes at Champlain Valley Union High School last night for a short course on solar photovoltaic installation.  Overall the whole thing was worthwhile.  I know much more than I did before the class.  I am ready to make it happen.  Oh, but that huge price tag.  Ouch.

Would it pay off?  If you look at just the financial pay back it is hard to judge just how long it would take to break even.  It is easy to do the math with some assumptions.  If you keep the cost of electricity static, it would take maybe 20 years to balance the initial investment with monthly savings.  That is a long time.  If the cost were a little lower, then maybe it would be a no brainer.  But the cake is big.

If we invested in a solar system it might cost as much as $40,000 to install a system that would generate all the power we use now, before any incentives.  A system might cost less, given some other assumptions, and we might invest in a smaller system.  There are lots of variables.  Even a $20,ooo price tag would be huge, however.  If we figure in interest, since we would have to finance a system, the cost grows.  It is the right thing to do, but it is hard to swallow such a huge investment, especially when it means saving maybe 60 bucks a month.

We just started the refinancing process.  We will save more than $60/month  just by getting a lower interest rate on our mortage (4.5%!) but that is a bigger loan.  The scale thing just makes such a big difference.  If incentives were high enough that we could reduce the initial cost and the time to breaking even, I would be ready to make it happen.  We just can’t afford to do it right now.

I will keep my finger on the pulse of what might change with alternative energy (What’s up with “alternative” for wind and solar, anyway?  Shouldn’t coal be considered alternative?).  Until the cost goes down, or we get a big influx of cash, however, it ain’t happenin’.  I could use a little of that stimulus over my way.

Solar Class Take Two

I went to the second of three classes last night to learn about photovoltaic power, presented by Gary Beckwith of the Solar Bus.  I learned a few things.  I feel that I have a good basic understanding of solar power but there have been lots of holes in my understanding.  Those holes are getting filled in.

Here is one thing I learned.  I had the idea that a grid tied system meant you would generate your own energy and what you did not use would be sent back to the grid, and you would get paid for that power.  If the power goes out, you still have power.  Not so.  With a grid-tied system, if the grid goes down, so does your system, so no power, even if the sun is shining.  This makes sense from a safety perspective.  If the power goes out and someone is working on the power lines, they might get shocked if your system is sending power out.

You can set up a battery back-up system, but this needs to part of the plan from the start.  Modifications are not simple.  An off-grid system relies on batteries.  Any electricity goes into the batteries and you always draw from the batteries.  With a “hybrid” system, electricity comes from the panels themselves and the system only draws from the batteries if the grid is down.  Phew.  Who knew things were so complicated?

I also learned that Vermont’s incentives for installing solar power only apply to grid-tied systems.  A self-contained system won’t qualify for any tax credits.  And not only does the system have to have the ability to feed power back to the grid, but it needs to be installed by only qualified installers.   No DIY of you want to get a tax credit.  Maybe that will change.  It seems silly not to offer tax credits to any system that reduces fossil fuel use.

If we made some efficiency changes a system for our house might cost $20,000 before any tax credits.  We talked last night about how long it might take to make that back.  Who knows, really?  It would depend on lots of variables, but we are talking twenty years before the energy would be pretty much “free.”  Of course, we wouldn’t do it just for financial reasons, but it would be nice if the cost were a little lower.

Gary thinks that even if we made no changes in technology, the cost of solar systems could be cut in half just with increased production and economies of scale.  But not enough people are creating demand because the systems cost too much.  A Catch-22.  I would love to see increased tax (or other) incentives for installation of alternative energy systems.  Then perhaps we really could make the investment.

I would love to install a system that integrates a wind generator and solar panels so we could generate energy most of the time.  I’ll see what our last class has to offer.  Already, I have enough information to think about solar energy in a more informed way.  One of these days, we will take the plunge and make it happen for us.  When “one of these days” might be, well, that remains undetermined.  Until then, I will continue to try to just use less energy.  That won’t cost anything.

Solar Class

I went to part one of a three part evening class tonight, an Access class at Champlain Valley Union High School.  It was presented by Gary Becker of the Solar Bus.  The idea is to get some information about photovoltaics.  Everyone there has some desire to use the sun for electricity generation, including me.  This first class was pretty basic.  We got some general ideas about how things work.  It got me more curious.

Some key points:

Enough sunlight hits the earth every minute to supply all the electricty demand of everyone in the world for a year.

The United States could generate all of its electricity demand from solar power from an area about 45 miles square.

Vermont could generate all of its electricity demand from solar power from an area about 4.2 miles square.

Questions I need answered:

How much electricity would a 1-kilowatt system produce?  What would I need?  And what would it cost?

Those are questions for the next class, when we will get more into the details of how systems work.  We’ll see if I get my 40 bucks worth.