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Patrick Springer, Forum Communications Co., Published April 21 2012

Fargo family converting house to create, store own power to get off the electricity system

Fargo - John and Robyn Bagu have an ambitious home improvement project in the works for their house in the tidy Autumn Fields neighborhood on the south side.

One day, their roof will be festooned with black solar panels and a small turbine or two.

Their goal is to harness enough power from the sun and wind to allow them to “go off the grid” – disconnect their three-bedroom house from the electricity system.

They’re hoping the idea will catch on over time, a sort of perpetual residential observance of Earth Day, which is today.

“Let’s become more energy independent, individually and community-wise and country-wise,” John Bagu says. “In case the grid goes down, you’re energy independent.”

It’s not a step that John Bagu, a biochemist who runs a research lab at North Dakota State University, takes lightly.

“Once we disconnect ourselves from the system, we’re on our own,” he says. “That’s not a comfortable feeling. There’s no umbilical cord.”

To prepare for that day, Bagu has immersed himself in the arcane details of solar panels, battery efficiency, charge controllers, power converters and wind turbine design.

“We’re taking it one stage at a time,” he says. “This is a long-term project.”

The Bagus call their project the guinea pig house.

Though they’re not the first ever to attempt such a feat, it is rare. They want to demonstrate the feasibility of residential-scale solar and wind power so interested homeowners can take similar steps.

About 10 other area homeowners, including fellow faculty members at NDSU, are following the Bagu’s experiment to see how it turns out.

“They’re kind of waiting for me to jump off a cliff and see if I kill myself,” John Bagu says, chuckling. “The thing is, they need someone to do it and show them it can work. I hope to start a cascade effect.”

They’re getting some help. An engineering class at NDSU is working with the Bagus to help them solve technical challenges and find efficiencies to make their meshed solar-and-wind project viable.

“This is a complex challenge,” says David Wells, a professor of manufacturing engineering at NDSU, whose capstone class is working with the Bagus. “It’s not simple stuff.”

His six engineering students have a May deadline looming to finish their project.

“They’ve been spending some real late nights here in the lab,” he says. “They’re pretty excited.”

Eventually, Wells and the Bagus hope that interested homeowners can walk into a home center and buy equipment off the shelf that would enable them to “go off the grid.”

“That’s the Holy Grail,” Wells says. If that happens, it be partly from the pioneering efforts of people like the Bagus, he adds.

“I give John and Robyn Bagu just an enormous amount of credit,” Wells says. “They’re saying we’re going to put our money where our mouth is.”

The spark of the idea to make their house generate its own electricity came in 2010, soon after they moved into their new home.

They’ve done a lot of planning, and have taken a few simple energy conservation and pollution reduction steps – easy for anyone to do, such as recycling much of their garbage.

Notably, the Bagus have replaced 58 light bulbs in their home with LED – light-emitting diode – bulbs that are much more efficient. By doing that, they save more than 200 kilowatt hours of electricity a month, or almost a 20 percent drop. The bulbs are supposed to last up to 25 years.

The cost of the bulbs was about $1,000, but the payback is three or four years – and the energy savings will allow Bagu to install fewer solar panels, a savings of $2,000.

“If everybody put in LED lights, we’d all reduce our electricity consumption by 20 percent,” John Bagu says. “Just think about saving $20 or $30 a month on your electricity bill. It makes a big difference.”

Switching to LED bulbs was the easy part of the project. The Bagus still must overcome a number of obstacles.

One of them is a space problem. As city dwellers, they don’t have acres of land for an array of solar panels and turbines.

They also must comply with city noise and height ordinances, so those wind turbines can’t be too loud or too tall to bother the neighbors.

“Here we’re limited to what our land is, which is small,” Robyn Bagu says. “It will be interesting. Most people who do end up going off the grid are rural, and we’re not. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge that we have.”

Another challenge, one that caught the Bagus by surprise in gusty Fargo: low average wind speed.

At rooftop level, the average wind speed at their home in southwest Fargo is 5 to 11 mph, lower than they’d expected.

That means they have to find a turbine design that works well at lower wind speeds. Most turbines are designed for placement on tall towers, where wind velocity is higher.

Also, wind is, of course, intermittent. That problem can be offset by solar power, but efficient battery storage will be crucial to the guinea pig house’s success.

“Wind does have its problems, and solar does have its problems,” John Bagu says, “but if you put them together, they work quite well.”

Wells’ engineering students have been collaborating with students at a college in suburban Seattle, where the specialty is custom materials. That class is contributing the small wind turbine.

Depending on how it performs, one or two additional turbines might be required, John Bagu says.

The Bagus have found a supply of affordable solar panels, and have managed to keep the cost to $1 per kilowatt – a key threshold for keeping the system affordable.

But they’re facing some challenges in finding affordable batteries as well as the associated power controller and inverter assemblies.

Including turbines and solar panels, the project’s estimated cost will be about $30,000. But the Bagus’ cost is a lot higher than it would be for any homeowners who want to follow in their trail.

After all, being a guinea pig entails no small amount of trial and error, as well as what industry calls research and development costs.

“Our perspective is not just economic but environmental,” John Bagu says.

A more typical cost, John Bagu estimates, would be $15,000 to $20,000. Over time, as technology improves, that cost should go down, he adds.

Their initial goal was to devise an affordable system that would pay back the investment in seven years for someone with a $100-a-month energy bill. That period now looks too optimistic.

Undaunted by sticker shock – the Bagus already have invested $10,000 in the venture – the couple plans to install the equipment in May, with the goal of going off the grid by September.

“I’m all in,” John Bagu says. “This is going to happen. I really want to get it done this year.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522