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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Source of Energy

Funny how my own perception of myself can be SO different from…well…yours.  A couple months into the project, Builder Tom finally confessed that he and “his boys” had a nickname for me, a name I never would have taken to myself.  Energizer Bunny.  One moment they’d see me splitting firewood at the high spot and the next buzzing a trail through the far east hedgerow.  Tom laughed as he told me, “The Bunny met his match in those boys.”  He was right, after a night and a day trying to keep up with my friend Heather’s two young boys, I was sputtering.  Bleary eyed, my proverbial batteries were indeed running low.

Or was it the batteries?

Watching (and occasionally tending) our off-grid electric has made me hyper-aware of the source of energy.  Initially, of course, all our power comes from the sun, the array mysteriously converting photon flow in electron flow.  But this power is fleeting---use it or lose it immediately---unless I store each and every unused electron.  That’s the job of our 16 Rolls batteries.  All of our electricity---even the juice powering the computer as I type---rises out of the battery, whose performance I have often marveled.

Turns out my perception was wrong.

In last week’s Report Card, I gave the off-grid electric a B for cold-season performance based on 1 / month need to start the loud, stinky, diesel-guzzling generator.  I’m reconsidering that grade.  I started the generator Monday morning and I’ll likely start it again this afternoon.  Turns out the batteries are under-performing.  We expected they’d provide 4 days of power with zero input from the sun.  We’re only getting two.   Question is how’d I miss that until now?

The answer is our awesome solar panels.  The perform so well, providing so much power in all but the gloomiest days, that we never get zero input from the sun.  Until now.  Until the deep dark fog-shrouded days of December.   I now understand why even in places like Seattle, where winter is relatively warm, that all their beautiful gardens, even the grasses, stop growing.  There just isn’t enough juice.  They’d starve. 

The Indian grass on our prairie has known this for eons.  And in those eons they’ve developed impressive batteries---roots tunneling 10 feet underground---enabling them to store solar energy for six months.     So what’s the source of their energy?  What enables their amazing spring green-up?  The sun?  Their roots?  Or could it be their conservation?  The winter shut-down itself? 

So I’m asking this about myself.  Now, in the deep dark fog-shrouded days of December, the Energizer Bunny is sputtering.  Why?  I'm not sure.  And given the magnitude of the mistake I made on our off-grid electric, I’m not trusting my ability to well-answer the question.

Is it my batteries?  Is my capacity to store energy less than needed?

Is it my sun?  Is there not enough energy coming in?

Am I not conserving?  Am I attempting to get out more energy than I take in?  
I now know why I never liked Builder Tom’s nickname.  It’s about the battery and I think of myself as a sun guy.  Just go get more juice!  Yet, as I gaze out upon a head-high stalk of Indian grass---ghost of autumn, promise of spring---I wonder.    Perhaps there are other options.  Perhaps I have much to learn from the Genius of this Place.  

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