Less than two decades ago, if you wanted to use solar power, chances are you’d turn your back on the Long Island Power Authority and go off the grid.
But thanks to the wild success of LIPA’s alternative energy rebates for people who tie their rooftop solar power into the electric grid and generate tax credits, working with the power authority has become a popular way to go.
Even grid tie-ins have their limits, though. You can’t run an electric line to a boat out at sea, and it can be cumbersome to run one to your car or RV. And even the power authority couldn’t use all the solar power that would be generated if everyone put solar panels on their roofs and tied into the grid, since solar power is produced only when the sun shines.
“The big push on Long Island has been to do a grid tie-in, but ultimately, off-the-grid is going to wind up being the bigger use,” said Gary Minnick, whose Aquebogue-based Go Solar, which opened in 1979, was the East End’s first solar provider. “You can only put so much solar on the grid. After that point, solar generates more power than the utility can use.”
In off-the-grid electric systems, power generated when the sun shines is stored in batteries, which provide power at night and on cloudy or rainy days. But solar systems that are tied into the grid don’t store the energy they generate. Instead, that power goes to neighboring properties in the LIPA grid, and the person who has the solar panels on their roof watches their meter run backward during the day.
Mr. Minnick said the theoretical limit of solar power that can be used by LIPA is about 2 percent, but the system cannot legally generate more than 1 percent of its electricity from grid tie-ins.
LIPA, however, has a mandate to produce 45 percent of its electricity by alternative methods or increased efficiency by 2015.
“They’re going to have to store it,” in order to reach that goal, Mr. Minnick said. “They can take solar and convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. They can store the hydrogen and burn it at night.”
And while it may take LIPA a while to reach that goal, many local residents are using off-the-grid solar power to their advantage.
Joe Colao of Northampton has been using solar power for about 25 years. He has two systems, a wind turbine photovoltaic system and another tied into the grid that sells excess power back to the utility company.
“I just like to save money,” he said. “That’s the way it started. In 1986, Hurricane Gloria came through and we lost power for a few weeks. I decided to try different energy sources so that wouldn’t happen again.”
Mr. Colao has a 36-foot Airstream trailer and solar-powered “cabana” at his solar-powered home on Wildwood Lake.
Perhaps the most unique solar-powered piece of machinery he ever built was a lawn mower he constructed 10 years ago.
“I took two 12 volt batteries and hooked them up to an existing electric lawn mower,” he said. “Two solar panels on the handle of the mower then charge the two batteries that run the mower.”
Jim Slezak, co-owner of Red Barn Bed and Breakfast in Riverhead, also uses solar power for his gadgets. One of the unique things about Red Barn is that guests can take an astronomy tour from the observatory there, where Mr. Slezak uses a Celestron Schmidt Cassegraine telescope powered by solar energy.
The backyard solar panels were installed by Go Solar with a 25-year warranty.
“Solar panels are a great thing,” Mr. Slezak said. “This works well for us. It just sits there, doesn’t make any noise and generates electricity from the sun.”