It’s Not Working

It’s Not Working by James Howard Kunstler

…if you’re reading this personal lamentation, consider bending toward simplicity….

This summer’s weather is perfect now in the Hudson Valley: warm, sunny days for primping the garden and cool nights that invite deep sleep. Zucchini and cukes are coming on, along with currants, gooseberries, blueberries. Unseen underground, the potatoes swell. The chickens range happily over their daily smorgasbord of bugs. At midnight, fireflies blink in the orchard. On the human side, though — commerce, culture, and politics — nothing works. At least not here in America. Sigh….

The solar electric I installed on the house nine years ago is down. It’s supposed to feed that monster called the grid. Since April, I noticed that the electric bill is creeping up way beyond the usual seventeen bucks that the electric company charges home solar producers for the privilege of feeding their system — which, let’s face it, has a downside for them because the intermittency of so-called alt-energy disorders their operations.

It’s counter-intuitive. Many people, I’m sure, assume that the more solar units feeding the grid, the better. Strangely, not so. Electric companies work much better when the production and flow of current is absolutely predictable and under their control — like, when they decide to fire up the natgas on generator number three or tune down the hydro turbines. It’s much harder to run the system with little dribs and drabs of electricity trickling in from hither and yon. But alt-energy is good PR for the government, so they do whatever they can to promote or even compel its use.

I got a whopping folio of tax breaks and subsidies from the state and federal government when I decided to put solar electric on my house in 2013, though it finally still cost a lot: $35-K. I had intimations of living through a chaotic period of history, and the decision was consistent with my general theory of history, which is that things happen because they seem like a good idea at the time. Getting a home solar electric rig seemed like a good idea.

So, last week, after considerable hassle with my solar company setting up an appointment for a techie to visit and evaluate the problem here, the guy came up (at $150-an-hour) and informed me that my charge controller was shot. The charge controller processes all those chaotic watts coming from the solar panels on the roof into an orderly parade of electrons. He also told me that my back-up batteries — for running critical loads like the well-pump during grid outages — were at the end of their design life. Subtext: you have to get new batteries.

There are four big ones in a cabinet under the blown charge controller and the inverter (for turning direct current into alternating current that is the standard for running things). The techie had some bad news, though. New building codes forbid his company from replacing the kind of batteries I have, which are standard “sealed cell” lead-acid batteries. Some bullshit about off-gassing flammable fumes. Now the government requires lithium batteries, which would cost me sixteen-thousand dollars ($16-K) more to replace than new lead-acid batteries.

Now, it’s theoretically possible for me to replace the less-expensive lead-acid batteries — they’re still manufactured and sold — but the catch is: I’m on my own getting them and installing them. I’m in the middle of that learning-curve right now. These particular batteries cost about $850-each for the four of them, plus a hefty charge for “drop-shipping” about three hundred pounds of lead and plastic. I will almost certainly go that way, though. A new charge controller will run about $2-K. All together, replacing these components represents a big chunk of change.

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