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Patrick Springer, Published October 20 2012

Fargo couple gets electricity off the grid

FARGO – John and Robyn Bagu have learned not to multitask when it comes to turning on big electrical appliances in their home.

So you won’t catch them washing and drying multiple loads of laundry while running the oven – especially on a cloudy day.

The Fargo couple flipped a switch in early September that started a yearlong experiment involving residential solar power and battery storage of electricity.

Their goal is to make their home self-sufficient using electricity generated from solar panels on the roofs of their house and garage.

So far, the results are encouraging, even though the launch coincided with the seasonal shift in weather to fall, with cooler, cloudier days more prevalent.

“I’m very pleased with the system,” John Bagu says, noting the house’s electricity generation is running about 10 percent above consumption in its first month of operation.

Surplus electricity flows to the grid, most likely helping an unsuspecting neighbor brew the morning pot of coffee with “green” energy.Since generating their own electricity via solar power, the Bagus have become much more conscious of their energy consumption habits, which they track in real time.

John Bagu, a scientist who runs a lab at North Dakota State University, keeps a close eye on digital readouts showing energy output, and beams with a sense of accomplishment when he’s generating a surplus.

“Sometimes I sit and watch the energy come in,” he says. “It’s kind of cool.”

The Bagus have turned their home in south Fargo into something of a domestic research and demonstration project exploring renewable energy.

Their ultimate goal is to be able drive electric cars on power generated at home, in an effort to greatly reduce their carbon footprint to trim greenhouse gas emissions.

The first phase of their project originally called for a wind turbine to generate wind power. But the cost and problems in perfecting turbine blade design forced them to postpone that component.

The Bagus still are monitoring wind conditions on their rooftop, and the average wind speed recorded so far, between 10 and 11 mph, is viable.

Although the early solar power results are encouraging, the system will get its toughest test this winter when temperatures plunge and heavy snow could pose a problem with the solar panels.

“What are the winters going to be like?” Bagu asks. “That’s the challenge.”

Still, because the solar panels are positioned at an angle, allowing snow to slide off, and their dark color absorbs heat, snow accumulation shouldn’t be a problem, he adds.

The Bagus’ investment in solar power was considerable. Materials cost $19,300 and installation cost another $15,700, most of that for custom electricity regulators and devices, for a total of $35,000.

That came to a per-watt price of $4.70, within the $4 to $6 range considered normal for residential solar panels.

By saving $100 a month in electricity bills, the Bagus can recoup their investment over 20 years, which is within the expected 25-year life of the system. If electricity rates go up, the payback period will be shorter.

“I don’t have to pay a $100 energy bill anymore,” Bagu said.

The Bagus realize most homeowners aren’t willing to make such a large investment in home-generated green power.

For those who would remain tied to the transmission grid, the cost is considerably lower, with a much shorter payback.

The total cost of a system tied to the grid is $18,000, with materials accounting for $10,000, according to Bagu’s figures. A federal rebate would reduce the cost by $5,400.

The cost would be significantly lower for residents in Moorhead, where a rebate of up to $10,000 is available until the end of the year.

For those consumers, a payback would be possible in as little as two years, an illustration of the dramatic difference incentives can make in the affordability of renewable energy, he said.

By comparison, the Bagus recently spent $9,000 for a vinyl fence for their backyard, an expense that never will “pay for itself,” in the way solar power can.

For the next year, the Bagus will monitor the electricity they consume compared to the energy they generate from the sun to see if it would be viable to disconnect from the grid.

In the meantime, they have adjusted their routines in a way that would allow them to live off the grid.

“That’s kind of a personal challenge we have right now,” John Bagu said. “We don’t want to use more than we generate.

It has meant relatively minor adjustments, such as trying to minimize laundry loads.

“I try not to do everything at once,” Robyn Bagu said.

The adjustments have been smaller than her husband anticipated, because the sun has been doing better than he’d predicted.

“So far we’re producing 20 percent more than I thought,” he said. “I’m very pleased with this. I’m glad we did this.”

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