The Real Problem with Solar Power

When we first moved here to Happy Hippie Acres about six years ago, I had visions of someday getting wind or solar doodads hooked up to help offset our power bill, be self-sufficient, and, equally importantly, reduce our carbon footprint a bit. We live in Northwest Iowa, so it’s windy all the time, and there are plenty of places to put solar panels to take advantage of the sun, so why not look into those avenues? After we got settled into our new home and had been here for about a year I e-mailed a few companies that specialize in solar power asking them for advice, prices, etc. Of the four companies I e-mailed only one responded.

“Why would you want solar? Energy is cheap where you live. It would take years for you to recoup the investment. I wouldn’t bother.”


Well, it’s not all about money. It’s about a bit of independence and helping the environment. But the response put me off for several years. I looked at wind energy, but again I was waved off by everyone I contacted, “the technology isn’t ready for home use yet.” Sigh.

After about the 90th time I found myself airbrushing power lines out of photos of my acreage I started to wonder… If solar isn’t viable for my home, would it at least power my shed and garage so I could get rid of the ugly power lines? Hmmm. Not long after that, the local power company came and replaced the pole in our yard and I absolutely loved the way things looked when there were no power lines dangling about…

So just a few days ago I finally found time to do some research on the issue. Could I find an inexpensive solar system to power my shed? I started thinking about what I really use in the shed as far as power goes.

  1. The dogs’ “invisible fence.” (Very, very low power usage, but it needs to be on 24/7 365.)
  2.  A couple fluorescent lights. (I’d love to replace them with LEDs, but I haven’t the faintest idea how to go about that.)
  3. My old stereo from the 1990s that is plugged in about three times a year.
  4. A chainsaw sharpener – basically an electric grindstone. I use it about 15 minutes a month, if that.
  5. In the summer I’ll plug my power tool batteries in up there to keep them charged.

I occasionally toy with the idea of getting a small heater of some kind to put up there to keep the barn kitties a bit more comfortable and to offset the bitterest cold of an Iowa winter a bit, but that’s so very low priority that it’s not even on the table… The shed’s about two-thirds insulated and has plenty of holes in the walls.

When you add all that up, it doesn’t seem like I’d need much juice to power the shed. I’d need less for my garage – all we have in there are a few lights on a motion sensor and a garage door opener that gets used every couple days. So I was excited when the first solar power kit I saw online was a $150 setup – way, way more affordable than I thought! Huzzah! Visions of those power lines coming down danced in my head, along with the thought that maybe with solar power I really could put a passive heater in the shed during the winter.

Then I started reading…Output is 12 megapascals per hectare, the voltage is ohm with jelly, you need some sort of battery (I’m assuming double A size, I don’t really know), you need to put iodine on the kerjigger to make the farvel whoozit, snark morgle kerbam woof in parallel except on Tuesday but you have to buy a donkulator to carburate the flonk.

Evidently some of the words were English, but I have close to zero idea what any of it meant. I’m assuming the kit could power either a cell phone or Kiev in December, but I don’t really know. After reading the description I wasn’t even sure if it plugged into the wall somehow or if it was all some sort of battery-powered thing.

I'm pretty good with a screwdriver. How hard can this "electricity" stuff be?

I’m pretty good with a screwdriver. How hard can this “electricity” stuff be?


I looked up a different model – “The first complete home solar power kit on the market. Runs appliances, lights, and devices up to 800 watts. Plug and play, no installation required.” Sounds perfect to me, even though I don’t know what the “up to 800 watts” means! But once I read a little further it became apparent that this “complete home solar power kit” didn’t include solar panels, any mounting brackets, wires, or anything – it’s just some sort of a funky battery. You have to buy all the other stuff separately and hope it all works together by magic, I guess.

Which leads me to the main point of this article – the REAL problem with solar power.

The real problem with solar power is that I want to go online and find some unit or kit somewhere that says quite simply, “This will provide enough power to run the lights in your garage and the garage door opener. Everything is included, and this is how it works.” I don’t understand voltiwatts or ohmages, I don’t know how many electric kerjiggers I need by number, I just want to know how much gunk can I run with this unit. Plain English. I mean, c’mon, I’ve got a job, I don’t have a month of spare time to fiddle with this, I just wanna buy a thing that works with a description I can read without pulling a dictionary out.

Until some company comes up with a description that uses language that hippies, artists, and tree-huggers can understand, I’m afraid I’ll be left on the solar sidelines. Sadly.

2 thoughts on “The Real Problem with Solar Power

  1. Bob Pelelo

    Hey Chris,
    Long time since we have talked.
    I have a little experience with solar power. I have handled many connections by Members at the electric coop where I work.

    I think you should look into net-metering at your farm. This way you wouldn’t need to bother with batteries. Instead, you let the electric grid be your battery.
    You install solar panels on your house or on one of your out-buildings. These panels’ production is run through an inverter (which converts the power from DC to AC) and the power is either used by you at your property or the power flows back onto the grid. When it flows back onto the grid, you would receive credit for that.
    These systems can vary greatly in size. You could start small-with just a few panels and, perhaps, one string inverter. A small system probably won’t ever generate back onto the grid. But remember that every kilowatt/hour that you produce yourself is green and one that you won’t be buying from the power company.
    I would encourage you to contact your coop. They may offer net-metering. (they should) They may also have some tools that could help you with choices. Also, google “net-metering” and “solar power string inverters”. There is lots of information out there-some good and some bad. Look for info from solar power friendly organizations rather than from vendors.
    Residential solar costs are dropping. You should expect to pay between $2 and $3 per watt of output you are installing. Smaller systems will cost more per watt. There may even be rebates.
    If you want to talk about this feel free to email me at I know the above message was brief and a little convoluted.
    Bob Pelelo

  2. VEG

    I assume when solar totally takes off mainstream, the electricity companies will have to cash in on that and make it just as expensive as the power is now, because they’re idiots. I’ve always thought when I get my Airstream I’m going to use solar or wind power to generate electricity for that at least. I WILL.

    Up here power’s really effing expensive. I can’t even look at the power bill in my house for Dec/Jan in case I faint with horror. And I run infrared heat in two rooms only and keep the baseboards OFF and all the bulbs are LEDs, so heaven knows what it would cost otherwise.

    Solar and wind though, that’s what I’d like. When you’re all electric it’s really expensive using traditional power here. Even gas would be better.


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