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As far back as 1970, when photovoltaics were little more than a scientific curiosity to everyone but NASA, Dan was reading about ways to use sunlight to do useful work. “It seemed so obvious, even in the early 80’s, when we added a greenhouse porch onto a previous home, and built our first solar food dryer,” the middle school art teacher recalls. “There is such a tremendous amount of free energy just waiting to be used, but few people were doing anything with it.”
In 1987, when they built their current home from custom-milled lodgepole pine logs on a 55-acre tract outside of Vinton, things weren’t much different. Wind turbines were cantankerous, untrustworthy beasts, and solar electric systems were beyond the reach of all but the well-heeled. So, as almost everyone did back then, the Isbells hooked into the power grid. “We even wired the house for electric heat,” Dan admits, with an ironic smile and a shake of his head, “though, honestly, we never really used it.”
These days, the electric heating circuits are disconnected; the house is heated exclusively with wood, and the passive-solar elements Dan and Kim built into their home. These include: south-facing windows, operable skylights, an open floor plan, and at least two sources of natural light and ventilation in every room.
Not that the couple has severed its ties with the local electric utility. Instead, they use the power grid in much the same way remote homeowners use backup generators: as a means to recharge their bank of sealed, absorbed glass-mat batteries, when both the sun and wind are uncooperative. The Trace 4024 sine wave inverter used to convert the 24-volt DC coming from the wind turbine and solar array into usable 120-volt AC house current is programmed to automatically charge the batteries from the electric utility, once the batteries reach a preset level of discharge.
It’s nothing that happens very often—for the years of 2002 and 2003 the couple used a mere 217 kWh’s of grid power. At $0.08 per kWh, that’s 72 cents worth of electricity per month.
Still, it begs the question: why bother to install and maintain an expensive wind and PV system when you already have a perfectly functional power pole right next to your house? Dan explains, “In 1998, when the Y2K scare was starting to pick up steam, Kim and I decided it was time. Oh, we’d have done it anyway, sooner or later, but Y2K gave us the impetus we needed.”