27 February 2015

Why we've gone solar - photovoltaic power in NZ

They aren't pretty from the back - although I quite like them from the front - but there is a great beauty to photovoltaic panels.  We had twelve installed on our Hamilton roof just before Christmas, and they were switched on in early January (the delay was due to a wait for an electrical inspection).

The cost 

Just before we signed up for the panels, the main electricity companies dropped the price they pay to homeowners feeding power back into the grid. The drop was huge. We already knew, then, that this might not be a money earner for us.

The system cost $12,000 for a 3 kW system. Others will pay less for the same; we had the most difficult type of roof (concrete tile on one part, and tilt mounts on another) which hiked the installation fees, and we chose a more expensive microinverter system that cost an extra $2,000. Blame my house vanity for that. I didn't want the huge box that the cheaper string inverter system required in the house. (It can go outside the house if you have space near the switchboard.)

Our motivation

Despite the price, we decided to put our money where our mouths are, and chose not to think too hard about how quickly the cost would be refunded to us in the form of cheaper electricity bills (the payback period). If we think clean local electricity generation is a great idea, then we need to support the industry. If everyone stopped having systems installed because it didn't pay financially, the companies would go out of business. The great thing about solar panels is that they are on your roof where everyone can see them - you are advertising your principles. (Fortunately ours face the road.)

Plus, my husband loves them. He feels the same way about our panels as he does about his stack of firewood in the shed, and lying in front of a roaring fire on a cold winter night.

How we manage our electricity use

We had a short honeymoon period of having an old electricity metre that was wound backwards when we were generating more electricity than we used. It was brilliant. We even watched it continue to wind backwards when we switched on our heat pump as an air conditioner in the middle of a 28 degree day, then swing to spinning forwards when we boiled the jug. We got a rough idea of how much each appliance drew from the grid, and played around with things so there was as much backward winding as possible.

Now our import/expert metre is set up, we will be paid 7 cents per kW hour of electricity we feed back into the grid in summer, and 10 cents per kW hour in winter. We pay about 35 cents for each kW hour we buy in from the grid. So it makes sense to use as much of our required electricity as possible during the sunny middle of the day. We started generating about 7 am during the height of summer - although at that hour the amount was trifling - and it kept up for at least 12 hours on a sunny day. Now autumn is coming, the production hours are shorter.

So the dishwasher and washing machine should be switched on when the sun has climbed high, and if we get organised enough some cooking is also done then. It also pays not to use too many appliances at once - it's best to let the washing machine finish before doing the vacuuming, and finish the vacuuming before switching on the dishwasher. That way we know all our electricity is free; we won't use more than we are generating and have to commit that evil act of buying in pricey electricity from the grid.

Of course, that degree of management isn't always possible. We just do what we can comfortably fit into our routine.

Our clever move

Well, maybe it's not supremely clever, but instead of having all of our panels facing due north to maximise electricity production, we had three installed on a west-facing section of our roof. We generate less overall electricity this way, but we generate more in the late afternoon/early evening than we would with all north-facing panels. This, of course, is when we are more likely to be cooking the evening meal, so the generated electricity will be used, rather than sold earlier in the day for 7 cents and bought back in the evening for 35 cents.

Storing electricity

Ah, everyone wants to store what they generate at lunchtime so they can use it later. We can't do that yet - the batteries cost way too much - but we hope to be able to add that into our system one day.

The electricity bill

A snapshot from our first post-solar electricity bill.
Sorry the pic is so tiny: click on it for a bigger view.

Heh heh heh. We got a thrill when we received our first post-solar electricity bill. Here's a snapshot of it. Can you see the orange bar for this February, representing how much grid electricity we used? That's the almost invisible bar to the far right of the graph. It is minuscule. We generated more than we used, and got a credit to our account.

This did include a couple of weeks of the windback honeymoon mentioned above, when we were essentially getting a dollar's discount for every dollar's worth we generated. Plus it was an outstandingly sunny summer. I don't know if this lovely negative amount will happen again.

It definitely helps at this point to forget we paid $12,000 to be able to get this credit! But this is the first month of many more...

Our solar supplier

In case you're wondering, we bought our system from www.whatpowercrisis.co.nz. They were great.

Update for the following month's bill

In the following (also sunny) month, we used $60 worth of electricity. Before we got the panels, it used to be about $150 worth, so we're obviously doing a good job of using the electricity we generate while the sun's shining. Happily, we also exported about $30 worth, so our bill this month was $30 odd. Nice.

23 February 2015

Solar powered bread rolls

I'm building up to a post about our new photo-voltaic panels, lovely things that they are.

In the meantime, here are the details of some Very Good bread rolls I make quite regularly. Recently the rising and baking of these rolls in this house has been powered exclusively by the sun. I reckon that's so green that I might as well be hand-stitching a quilt of rabbit pelts harvested from my backyard rabbit farm. If I had one.

When I bake these I feel like Ma on Little House on the Prairie in her hand-built cabin, or maybe Milly Molly Mandy's Mother, sheltered by her thatched roof. How those women would have loved my breadmaker*! Not only would they have hand-kneaded their bread, but they would have had to light a fire to bake it, even in mid-summer. My weak arm muscles quiver at the thought.

This dough is actually a pizza base recipe from my friend of nearly 30 years, Sandra. (Sandra, how old we are growing!) The original uses all white flour and is definitely my favourite pizza base, too.

Solar Bread Rolls

(Of course you don't need solar power or a bread maker to make these; I am not that demanding.)
This takes about 15 minutes total effort with a breadmaker* (three bouts of five minutes). If you start at 10 am they'll be freshly baked for lunch.

1 3/4 tsp active dried yeast (not the breadmaker sort)
1 tsp salt
1-2 tsp sugar
3 3/4 cups of flour (making it as wholemealy as my family will tolerate, I use about 2 1/2 cups of wholemeal flour and the rest plain white)
1/4 c olive oil
1 1/3 cups water

You know, don't you, that the ratio of flour to water is crucial to making good bread? Therefore, you need to measure those ingredients carefully. Everything else you can be somewhat gung-ho with.

Place everything in a breadmaker* and mix on the fastest dough cycle. I have a Panasonic breadmaker with a pizza dough cycle that takes 45 minutes. Alternatively, mix it all together by hand, knead for 10 minutes and leave to rise in a warm place for 45 minutes or so.

Shape into balls with floured hands. Dip each ball into white flour to lightly coat it before sitting it on an aluminium baking tray. The flour coating stops the rolls sticking to the baking tray, making for an easy clean up. It's also very pleasing to the mouth.

Cover the dough balls and tray with a clean tea towel and place somewhere warm in direct sunlight: a sunny concrete patio or deck, a barbeque or even a trampoline all work well. Give strict instructions to the children if it's the latter. If it's not a verywarm day, place in an oven at 40oC.

After an hour or so the rolls will have risen beautifully. Remove the tea towel and place the tray in a 190oC oven. You can either preheat the oven, or put the tray directly in there as you turn it on. They should be baked within 10 minutes of it reaching full temperature.

These are good the same day and okay the next. After that they're chicken food, or you could freeze them ready to split and fill with garlicky/herby butter for when you want garlic bread.

*For a rave review about the gourmet and bank-account-flourishing benefits of owning a breadmaker, have a look at this post on my new favourite blog, Mr Money Mustache.

16 February 2015

Please don't reward people with "stuff"!

I expect you've noticed that green is the new black. Recently I read an Australian home and garden type magazine, and every house boasted its eco-credentials. I'm a sucker for a gorgeous house, but most were about three times as big as they needed to be, and massively overglazed, but hey, there was the odd recycled brick wall and some lofty insulation, so the eco box was perfunctorily ticked.

Anna's school is on trend and all-for-eco, and have a new environmental scheme the children can participate in. These schemes are great! But sometimes I think that the importance of not rewarding children or adults with "stuff" gets lost. There's little appeal to "not having", of course.

When the school children have done enough nude-fooding, walking to school and gardening - among other admirable things promoted by the scheme - they can purchase a badge and a T shirt to show off their achievements. I wonder where the badge and T shirt come from, and where will they be in five years' time?

A random sample of the stuff littering Anna's room.
Yes, she loves it all, and no, we do not need any more!
Note the restored art deco dressing table: t's not in my "stuff" category.
They will probably have come from China, in a factory that pours pollution into a river, and produced by near-slave labour. (The same goes for almost everything in Farmers, Briscoes, the Warehouse, Kathmandu.... etc.) In a year or two most of them will be in the dump.

There is no paying market, of course, for the true eco-mantras: Make do with what you have, and Stop buying Stuff! Most humans since the dawn of time have forcibly lived with those values; they have had no other choice. Now, quite suddenly really, we can update our wardrobes and houses with cheap crap every year or two. Just don't think too hard about how and where the crap was made, or it will be tinged with ugliness.

When my mother was born in the late 1930s, there were just over 2 billion people in the world. When Jack was born 11 years ago, there were 6 billion. Now there are 7 billion. I can't even conceive of one billion people, but I know they all like lovely stuff. What will it cost the planet to supply it, and where will it go when it's disposed of?

I think we need to be extremely choosy about what we buy.

Here's a call for creativity. How could the children be rewarded for their environmental achievements without giving them something that undermines those achievements? Anna scoffed at my suggestion of swan plants grown in home-made compost. A lunch-time sushi-making class, perhaps? An afternoon of making puppets, or a parkour lesson? A packet of seeds?

Beginners' parkour. No stuff required. 
(If you haven't spent twenty well-entertained minutes watching the 'Story of Stuff' video before, I totally recommend clicking here to watch it!)

9 February 2015

Growing up - and a new growth chart to prove it

The children started back at school last week after a long, hot, happy summer holiday. Jack, aged 11, was off to intermediate school for the first time, which meant getting a uniform together.

This is Anna on the first day of school, not Jack!
 He has asked me not to put his photo on this blog anymore.

It's at moments like this that I catch myself behaving like the mother of a cuckoo chick. The cuckoo egg has been illegally laid in a nest, and the resulting chick begs to its forcibly adoptive parents. The poor parents, utter slaves to their instincts, work themselves to the bone to feed the needy chick, even when it's as big as them and looks nothing like them.

I spent most of the day before school started sewing a new zip into a second hand uniform jacket - and it had to look GREAT before I was happy with it. Putting in a new zip nicely is harder than you'd think. The week before that I'd bought him an expensive pair of black leather shoes that fit the uniform code yet are all the rage (I can't even mention the brand lest it feed the beast of fashion and put more parents under pressure). He wore them to school on the first day, got a blister so painful that he walked home barefoot, and has worn a second hand pair of roman sandals ever since.

My cuckoo mother streak is rivaled by my streak of frugality and environmental awareness. This time last year someone told me how much the uniform cost to buy new, and a fortnight after that I'd bought almost an entire uniform set second hand for a fraction of the price. Jack doesn't care about second hand, as long as his gear is stylish. Thank goodness.

The boy is growing enormously fast now. We've been keeping track of the children's heights the old fashioned way: pencil marks scratched into a door frame.

Our continuing hallway renovation (read dragged out and way overtime - we are thoroughly sick of it) means that the door frames are being sanded and repainted. We can't bear to lose the height marks, so I splashed out on one of these:

It's a gorgeous pin-up wall canvas - photographed here on the floor, although eventually it will hang on the hall wall - and it can be moved or rolled up and stored away whenever needed. It's made in Christchurch. You can read more about it here.

I made a final measurement as I was transferring the numbers and dates from door frame to canvas. Jack has grown 2 cm in the last two months.

With a child-to-adult growth spurt looming - or even starting now - he's going to be more like that open-mouthed cuckoo chick than ever.

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