A Life-Changing Problem

Reader Contribution by Jack Fernard
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“Do you ever get the feeling that we’re just forcing a bad situation through?”

I look at my wife of twenty-one years as she chases our three year old around and I can’t help but groan in frustration as I know exactly what she is referring to. “Yeah, kid … I do.”

After years of talking about it, we finally owned that perfect piece of property and were now building our dream home. The property was just the right size, big enough to breathe on but not so big to get lost on. It was in just the right spot, located perfectly in the country but only five minutes from the freeway. It had a great mixture of berry trees, hardwoods and even a small stream at the back of it. It was all we could have hoped for – except for one small thing. It didn’t have electricity.

Proud owners!

This might not seem like a big issue considering that there are no less than four transformers in the immediate area. Heck, there was even a power pole already on the property – busily supplying our neighbors. Yet despite all of this obvious potential, we couldn’t have any of it. The problem was easements, or rather the lack of them.

Confused by this, I met with the utility representative and it was explained to me that when the surrounding power poles were put in, many years ago, no legal permission was obtained. It was assumed that permission was granted; otherwise, how would the home owners be able to use the electricity that they were asking for? Fast forward to today where people tend to be a little more eager to sue and that assumption disappears.

“So why aren’t you worried about being sued now?” I asked.

“Because, these poles are grandfathered in.”

And then it made sense. So long as nothing changed, no one could sue the power company for coming across their property. But as soon as the situation changed, say someone wanted to build a new house, then legal easements would have to be obtained. We couldn’t even use the existing infrastructure without getting easements from every land owner between us and the transformer. And the thing about easements is, unless you have a really great neighbor who is willing to give you free access, they don’t come cheap!

Before we knew it, the hook-up that we assumed would be minimal, was going to cost thousands. And with the basement walls already in place, my wife and I found ourselves at a loss as to what to do.

We had started this new house endeavor with the goal of being free of utility bills. As crazy as that sounds, technology wise, it’s actually not that hard. With some careful planning and a budget for solar, a home can be built that will produce all the electricity that it needs. Generally this works by generating extra electricity during the summer – for which you would feed back to the utility in exchange some kind of credit. Then in the winter, when sunlight is in less supply, you would use those credits to cover any electricity that the panels didn’t generate; giving you a zero sum solution. And who wouldn’t want a house like that? But this living-free status would only be achievable if we were grid-tied; meaning we would have to be connected to our utility company.

Now with the hook-up costs in the range of whole-house batteries, I began wondering, why connect at all? Suddenly, that weird hippie concept of going off-grid, didn’t look so bad. But I had concerns. I hadn’t done any research on off-grid systems so I really didn’t have a good idea of what I could realistically expect. And considering what it would be like to build a brand new home that was seriously underpowered and consequently, miserable to live in, I knew that I had to do some homework. It was time for me to reach out and talk with someone who had gone through this before.

We have a basement!

And that is when I met Wayne and Karen. This wonderful couple had the experience that I needed and were gracious enough to open their home to me and let me barrage them with a countless number of questions. The information that I gleaned was incredibly valuable, especially when it came to the utility company itself.

Unbeknownst to me, my particular utility company is only allowed to have 1 percent of their peak demand generated by homes like mine; meaning homes that are equipped with solar panels. And to make matters even worse, that 1 percent is divided up into three categories, with my house falling into the 0.5-percent category. So in other words, I had a 0.5-percent window to hit and if that was already filled, then no solar panels could be installed – whether I wanted to spend the money on them or not.

This is where things get personal for me. Exactly how are we, as a country, going to promote green jobs if the utilities are capped at 1 percent? How is any home owner going to take advantage of the 30% Renewable Energy Tax Credit if their opportunity to do so is limited to a 0.5-percent window? Would you spend the money on solar panels if you weren’t going to be able to use them? Remember that the next time you see a politician touting a green economy.

Thank goodness I had done my homework. If not for the help of Wayne and Karen, I would have paid the inordinately high hook-up price. And with my window of opportunity being less than 1 percent, I would have most likely ended up on a waiting list. Considering the 30-plus year lifespan of solar panels, this could have been a really long wait – if ever.

But instead, we are taking the road less traveled and in by doing so have assumed control of our own energy needs. We aren’t just going to be utility free, we are going completely off the grid! Our house will still be powered by the electricity that we generate for ourselves. Only now, we will do it without the ‘monthly correspondence’ of an electric company. People may call us non-conformists or maybe even reluctant rebels. But to my fellow off-grid brothers and sisters who dare to do something different … just call us family!

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