Can a homeowner count on wind and solar?

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

An engineer/inventor we know expressed concern that the global situation is bleak, yet society continues as if all is well. He sees cheap, abundant energy as underpinning modern society. As supplies dwindle and economic and environmental costs rise, society is poorly prepared to deal with the consequences.

To retain an optimistic outlook, he works on projects that hold promise of leading to a more sustainable society. His focus is on energy-efficient housing and LEDs for lighting.

Our conversation turned to individuals in this area who use renewable energy sources. As suggested by readers of this column, we interviewed some long-time users of renewable energy to provide a perspective on living with such sources.

Dave Merrill, who has been installing wind and solar systems as a business for several years, gave us an overview of his experiences with his own system.

Merrill is an engineer who had a personal interest in renewable energy before he entered the business. He installed his first wind system in 1995 on a pole next to his house in Byron, Ill. It was a Whisper 300, which worked well through 2005. When it began to show signs of wear, he replaced it with a Bergey XL1, which continues to provide trouble-free service.

In 1997, he installed a concentrating solar PV system with a tracker on his garage roof. It only lasted 18 months as focusing the sunlight on the solar cells raised surface temperatures to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The high temperature melted solder connections both to an aluminum plate used to diffuse heat and within the solar cells.

He replaced the failed unit with Siemens crystalline panels, which fit into the mounting. He noticed the motor driving the mounting rack was rusting, so he secured a replacement for it while it was still under warranty.

After 10 years, he had to replace the battery pack and anticipates the new set will last another decade.

He replaced a still-working, old, bulky inverter with a newer, sleeker model he felt looked more appealing.

Using his electrical bills as a guide, he estimates his system meets two-thirds of his electrical demand.

Another older system is a rather large and complex one owned by Jim Kohlart of Ashton. It consists of two Whisper wind generators—200 and 500 watts and a third Bergey XL1 unit. In a somewhat unorthodox manner, all three are located close together. He also has a 4.9 kW PV system.

His first installation was done during summer 2002. He had eight years of trouble-free service. However, an inverter serving a wind generator failed last summer and was replaced under the warranty.

The wind system requires more attention than does the PV system, which just hums along. In winter, snow has to be scraped off the panels to expose them to full sunlight. He estimates his complete system cuts his energy consumption in half.

Both owners remain grid-connected and are dependent on modern society for replacement parts.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail