We have to take a short detour from the story of the previous two weeks because it is now less than a week and half to the winter solstice (in the Southern Hemisphere at least).
For about a month either side of the winter solstice, my mind reflects upon the deficiencies of the off grid solar power system here. Don’t get me wrong, I love solar energy as it is a great source of electricity. It just happens to be subject to some deficiencies which generally show up at this time of year.
Some of those deficiencies are site specific because the farm is on a south western facing slope of the mountain range. During winter this side of the mountain range enjoys less sun than on the north facing slopes (the reverse is true in the Northern Hemisphere). Perhaps this is why it is less fashionable than the other side!
The tall trees surrounding the farm also grow ever taller each year, and the slightest shadow on a solar photovoltaic panel (we’ll just call them solar panels from here on) reduces the electrical output of that solar panel far more than would seem likely.
The final deficiency is that the weather is usually cloudy and rainy during winter. Those weather conditions are normal for this time of year, but any cloud at all will reduce the output of a solar panel, and very thick clouds can reduce the output to almost nothing at all.
The other day, I looked out the window and saw this view:
|A winter view looking over the valley towards the central highlands|
For about a month either side of the winter solstice I anxiously watch the weather and the weather forecast and hope that I never have to use the petrol generator (gas for people living in the US) to put some electrical charge into the house batteries.
“I fall apart when you’re around
When you're here, I'm nowhere
I can't pretend that I'm not down
I show it I know it”
Years ago I set myself the goal of living with an off grid solar power system and not using the petrol generator. During those early years I heaped truck loads of beliefs onto the ability of solar panels to produce lots of electricity, whilst the batteries would be able to provide that electricity whenever I needed it.
I began my off grid solar power journey with only eight panels. Let’s say that once the merest sniff of winter arrived (it was actually only very early autumn) in those early days, I ran out of power very quickly.
“I've been a fool, more than once, more than twice
I'm gonna move to a new town where the people are nice”
Running out of power was the point in time that I discovered my ill feelings towards petrol generators. I originally purchased a quality generator, but I accidentally blew up the main capacitor inside the generator (my fault) during those early days. This disaster happened just prior to the Easter holiday that year. I took the generator to the shop for repairs. The generator was repaired easily enough, but I didn’t gain access to the repaired generator until after the Easter holidays. And every day the charge in batteries went lower and lower. The batteries eventually got to about as low as 30% full.
Batteries are funny things because if you want them to last for a very long time, you basically can’t use them much. In practical terms, not using batteries much means not taking them below about 70% full. Also when the charge in batteries gets very low, the battery may not necessarily supply the sorts of power that electricity intensive machines (such as coffee machines with a heating element) require. Not supplying the editor with a morning coffee is definitely courting trouble. It would be trouble with me too!
Long term readers will recall that in previous years I have had access to a wood fired oven. Due to the recent change in wood heaters, I now no longer have access to a wood fired oven with which to cook. Instead I have been using the electric oven (and occasionally the gas LPG oven). My electricity demands have increased recently due to the loss of that wood oven, and the other day the editor came up with a genius idea: Add more solar panels!
“I hope I never, I hope I never have to sigh again
I hope I never, I hope I never have to cry again
I still want to beam and smile yeah
Happiness is back in style yeah”
Every year, we have made incremental improvements to the off grid solar power system. However, this year we intend to add five more solar panels to the system. This will bring the total number of installed solar panels to thirty. I have been told by a reliable source that the theoretical upper limit for solar panels in my off grid system is about fifty. Neither the editor, nor I have any intention of reaching that upper limit as there are significant diminishing returns to adding additional solar panels. And you have to remember that we are only seeking to use about 7kWh to 8kWh per day during this time of year. This expectation is far below the average daily household electricty usage in Australia. I really worry about people who promote solar power as a reliable replacement for base load electricity provided by coal fired (and their other ilk) power stations.
We’ve descended into a serious discussion here, so I thought that I’d lighten the mood by showing a photo of a very cool looking cloud which captured the light of the setting sun the other day.
|A cool looking cloud catches the setting sun the other day. People with active imaginations may be able to see the form of a rabbit in that cloud|
In order to connect up four of the five new solar panels, I had to run a very thick cable underground in a trench. But first, that long 30m / 100ft trench had to be dug by hand through the editors beautiful courtyard and beyond. Oops! Talk about courting trouble!
|A long 30m / 100ft trench had to be dug by hand through the editors beautiful courtyard and beyond|
“It should be possible I know
To see you without stress
But I can see I'll have to go”
Fortunately the destination for that long trench was in a more utilitarian area than the courtyard.
|The other end of the long trench eventually reached its destination|
Anyway, the technical side of things is that with a longer cable run generally the thicker cable has to be. Thinner cables lose electricity to heat. Electricity, from my perspective, seems to be like trying to store water in a leaky bucket. Seriously, the electricity just disappears everywhere. I have to laugh when people suggest that we should cover the deserts with solar panels as they don’t realise that deserts tend to be a long way from anywhere with good coffee, and transmitting that electricity from such a great distance is a difficult and expensive business. They may also have forgotten that high temperatures in deserts tend to reduce the output from solar panels. Plus they also make the assumption that nothing lives in the desert that may also want to use that sun.
|The author holds a very heavy run of long cables|
It is not all work here, as sometimes we just muck around, and the other afternoon whilst installing the long cable, I gave Scritchy the boss dog a scare from under the house.
|The author scares Scritchy the boss dog from under the house|
The cable was then enclosed by conduit to protect it. Then the area where the trench was dug was repaired. See how I avoid trouble with the editor: Clean up after yourself!
|The fluffy collective enjoyed a few moments of mid-winter sun on the recently repaired courtyard|
I then added a layer of crushed rock with lime over the top of the repaired surface in the courtyard. And you would never know what lies far beneath the surface! In addition to that, I added the first of the five solar panels to the off grid solar power system. That solar panel is on the very left hand side of the white cantina shed.
|The surface of the courtyard was soon repaired and almost looking exactly as it used to look|
Far out, that was a lot of work this week. Still, I hope I never have to see that generator again!
“I'm for living while you can
I'm an optimistic man
I hope I never, I hope I never have to see you again
Again, oh oh oh oh...”
We added some new ferns to the developing fern gully. The fern gully is important as it is placed high up at the top of the sunny orchard and the fern gully is used to infiltrate water into the soil which is collected from a huge expanse of the road. Eventually that collected water will travel downhill through the soil and be available to the sunny orchard. That’s the plan anyway…
|Several more tree ferns and a couple of Blackwoods (Acacia Melanoxylon) were purchased this week|
I reckon the fern gully is looking pretty good. The tree ferns will get taller as the years go on and the other ferns will spread to cover the area.
|I reckon the fern gully is looking pretty good|
Poopy rat bane proves that he is the fastest Pomeranian (technically he is a Sweedish Lapphund) down under as he can catch and kill rats. You go, Poopy! (edit: perhaps he found it already dead and is just a great salesman.)
|Poopy rat bane proves that he is the fastest Pomeranian (technically a Sweedish Lapphund) down under|
We harvested and cooked some beets this week. In the photo below on the left is a beetroot which has purple flesh. On the right in the photo below is a sugar beet which has 20% sugar and is very sweet.
|We harvested and cooked beetroot and sugar beet this week|
The Medlars are slowly being converted into medlar jelly. Whilst we were purchasing tree ferns, we also picked up many seedling potatoes for planting out later in the season. And the purple leaves from the beetroot were used to make a very tasty pesto (which is in the little bowl in the photo below):
|Medlar jelly is being produced. Seedling potatoes were bought. And beetroot leaves were used to make a tasty pesto|
Concerned readers may wonder and yes I have to admit that I feel like I have done a hard few days of work this week. With that in mind and in order to lift our spirits, I present you with some flowers which I spotted today:
|A mysterious daisy is enjoying the winter weather|
|The succulents are also loving the winter weather|
|The geraniums flower all year around here, although the flowers are more prolific in the warmer months|
|Penstemon’s are still flowering which seems very late to me|
|I noticed that a Feverfew herb appears to have hybridised and produced this strange flower|
The temperature outside now at about 7.00pm is 9’C (48’F). So far this year there has been 394.8mm (15.5 inches) which is more than last week’s total of 385.8mm (15.2 inches).
With the greatest of respects for the excellent New Zealand punk band "Split Enz" for their 1980 song "I hope I never" which was used in the story this week. As an interesting side note Tim Finn of that band is brother to Neil Finn who was the lead singer of the enormously successful band "Crowded House".