Friday, January 20, 2012

Power #1: We Build an Off the Grid Power Platform

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

(Power Article #1)  This is one of several articles on this blog describing the power platform my husband built off the "grid" with skillful Alaskan service providers.  This article describes the building process (without power tools).  The other articles describe the cost and functionality of the components we installed (and what worked and didn't), and how much power we use. 
Building it piece by piece
Want Power?

For many city/suburban people, the conundrum to overcome in installing wind or solar power is the upfront cost and pay back time vs current monthly utility bills.    On the other hand, in dilapidated towns in northern India, with, presumably, unreliable energy, every hotel we stayed in had solar powered water heaters dating back to the 1970s. For us, out in the bush, closer to Rajasthan than Rochester, we had fewer cost/benefit issues to debate.  Want power?  

Two choices: 

A: gasoline or diesel powered generator or B: some combination of wind and solar power.

 As a matter of fact, after we bought our remote property in South Central Alaska, the first building goal, before cabin, outhouse, or any other structure was power for communications. Since my husband is not retired, the determiner of how long we could stay out in the boonies was the quality of communication technology.  His goal was not heat but Internet, not water but a phone.  As the project evolved, it seemed like many a man’s dream:  he could pee behind a tree (well, a million of them) while checking his blackberry.  From a wife’s perspective, those are two of the worst scenarios combined, but I digress.

 We certainly need petroleum products for a number of power tools and a snow machine (snowmobile), and do use a 2000 watt Honda generator for the chop saw and other tools and to top off the batteries that store power for the cabin, shower house and freezers.  Why not rely totally on a generator?  Many older bush cabins and entire remote communities do so (does that undermine arguments about sustainability?) 

We decided to combine wind, solar, gasoline, and propane based on two reasons: (1) aesthetics and (2) anticipated increased costs of transportation and oil prices.

1)   Aesthetics: Why do I want to be out in a pristine wilderness only to smell gasoline and hear a motor running for hours at a time?  In such a quiet setting, noise travels, and as many acres distant as we are from our one full time neighbor and two occasional hunting/fishing cabins, I admit dismay when the prevailing wind brings the sound of their generators  churning for one project or another.  Older generators are NOISY, so it has been something of a selfish relief when they  have bought a newer one or encased it in a building ventilated towards the woods rather than the lake.  By sweet contrast,  solar power is, of course, absolutely silent, and wind power much quieter than a generator (except above exceptionally high wind speeds).

2)   Since petroleum products are heavy and flammable, transportation costs add to the expense - many remote communities report paying $10/gallon (for fuel + delivery).   Before we had our own snow machine and sled, we paid our full time neighbor $0.33/lb to haul in these and other supplies.  A little 20 lb propane bottle:  $7 transportation fee.    The alternative mode of delivery is air-taxi service by float or ski plane.  However, as flammable products cannot be hauled next to a tourist or two, we wait until we accumulate enough empty 100 lb and 20 lb propane tanks and 55 gallon gasoline drums to warrant chartering an entire deHavilland Beaver to deliver several years’ worth. Since we anticipate that future oil prices will raise the costs of both transport and the transported product, we are endeavoring to decrease our dependence by a number of means.  Among the most high-tech approaches is the power platform for solar and wind power.  


Building the platform required several seasons of advance planning and a long term goal to justify the cost.  The first winter that we bought the land, our neighbor hauled by sled two pallets (about 72 bags) of 60 lb bags of cement along with construction supplies.  By June, he had built us a snug and serviceable shed into which we could store power equipment, like a battery bank, and an inverter.   In June, we chartered two Beavers to haul out an electric cement mixer, metal platform sections, hundreds of feet of rolled wire and related hardware. 

Wind turbine, solar panels, phone
booster and satellite receiver  
The first summer, my intrepid father-in-law and I slowly and painstakingly weed whacked a veritable jungle of prickly Devil’s Club and 6 foot high soldiers ferns and grasses.  The mosquitoes hated our invasion of their happy home so this was not a pleasant pass-time.  Frequently we would abandon our task to flee angry hoards by running downhill toward the lake where the prevailing breeze was stronger than they were.  When the land was cleared in an 80 foot equilateral triangle, the men dug pits of 3 x 3 x 3 feet at 3 - 60 foot increments from the location of the central platform’s bigger base.   Into the four pits we laid rebar and then poured and stirred about 2/3 of the cement, which we mixed with lake water in the cement mixer (the rest of the cement was reserved for the cabin).  As each cube of cement hardened, we inserted the bases that would support the central metal platform and hold 6 sets of wires per side to stabilize it.

After two days of cement mixing, we took a welcome break.  When we returned to the work site, we found a huge pile of bear scat on one of the bases.  Thank goodness the cement was hard by that point!  Perhaps this is the ursine equivalent of a dog trotting through a wet sidewalk. 

The height of the platform was determined by the maximum height projected for the surrounding spruce and birch trees.  To be effective, obviously, all power components need to be above that point.  (By putting it on the highest piece of land on our property, we saved ourselves dozens of feet of platform height.  By positioning it back from the “lip” of the highest section, and obscured by trees, the platform is largely invisible from the lower parts of the property and lake front.)

The second winter, in March, in 0 degrees F, Bryan and an experienced, professional installer dug down through 6 feet of snow to locate the bases in order to build the platform and attach the wires.  The entire process impressed me in a horrified, city – girl sort of way.  Their work routine seemed like something in one of those "manly man" TV series.  One man, wearing rappelling gear, climbed the platform under wobbly, freezing conditions, in order to maneuver a gin pole into the lower section and hoist the next section into it and winch it upright.  Then he would whip off his gloves in order to tighten six bolts and, on alternating sections,  three wires, too, for added stability.  Meanwhile, Bryan tramped across the powder soft snow in snow shoes to connect wires into the respective bases (with his gloves off) and then back to the base to hoist supplies by nylon rope up to the climber. 

Once the platform just barely exceeded the height of the natural wind break provided by the surrounding trees, the work got particularly dangerous for the climber as the wind whipped him atop the unstable platform. My job, and every related thought, was to feed and warm them.  

Altogether, the work took many days, enforced by occasional rests recommended by sub zero temperatures or high winds.  By the end of the week, we had a platform in the middle of nowhere with nothing on it. Although nobody should be flying as low as the top of the platform unless descending to land on the lake, we alerted the various air taxis, private pilot associations like the Alaska Airmans’ Association, and piloting friends about this new landscape element.

The platform survived the onslaught of spring winds. Over the ensuing summer, we (my husband and the firm we absolutely relied on) installed four power and communications components that enabled us to expand the time we spent there to six months while we stumbled along our steep learning curve in the Alaskan bush.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your newest adventure. Your writing took me to Alaska with you and Bryan. I've enjoyed every moment so far and look forward to reading more.
    Keep on blogging!