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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, December 4, 2008

Porliers supply the grid, Freihofer meets his family’s needs

By Zach Simeone

HILLTOWNS — As towns in the Helderbergs contemplate regulations on alternative-energy projects, some residents have been exploring their options for years.

Victor and Lois Porlier have a windmill, and four solar panels on their property in Berne. They’ve been harnessing alternative energy since the ’90s, but could not recall the cost of their equipment.

Their 1.4-kilowatt, Fortis Passaat wind turbine is grounded by a copper ring that surrounds its footings underground. Beside the windmill are two 100-watt solar panels, manufactured by Siemens. Two 190-watt panels, made by Evergreen Solar, stand adjacent to their driveway.

Victor Porlier owns North Country Advisors, for whom he is a consultant. “I’m an economist primarily,” he said.

“And I’m a housewife,” Lois Porlier laughed. “I come out and rotate the solar panels according to the season, and I have to pull the brake on the turbine if winds get too fast,” she said.

It’s important for those interested in alternative energy to look into both wind and solar, Mr. Porlier said, “because, some days, there are high winds and little sunlight, and vice versa,” he said. “To think that [wind and solar energy] are a quick fix, or the [only] fix, to our energy problems is foolish, but we think they can make a substantial contribution.”

“We actually supply the grid,” Mrs. Porlier said. “There’s grid intertie on the two newer [solar] panels.” This means that all unused power generated by those panels goes towards the grid.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority requires 24-hour access to the controls for a grid-intertied system in the event of an emergency, “which is why we decided to put our inverters in the barn,” Mr. Porlier said.

Their wind and solar energy is stored in 12, wet-cell batteries in the basement. A wet cell can emit a poisonous hydrogen sulfite gas, so the Porliers have encased their batteries in a wooden box, which is attached to a pipe that carries the gas outside.

“If [the gas] got into the house,” Mrs. Porlier said, “you could have a little problem.”

“It’s expensive”

In neighboring Knox, Andy Freihofer’s privately owned, multi-faceted power system is made up of 30 solar panels, and a windmill that’s just barely visible from Knox Cave Road.

“I never use the grid in the daytime,” Freihofer said, “especially when I’ve got both wind and sun.” The energy generated by his home system powers everything in his house, including two ovens, an electric cooktop, and two refrigerators. He only uses power from the grid when the batteries in his basement need charging.

“It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it,” he said of his private energy system.

Freihofer, 58, is now retired from the Charles Freihofer Baking Company, where he worked in production and sanitation.

He has 15 solar-power arrays on his property. Each array is 78 square inches, and is made up of two panels mounted on steel poles about six feet high. Eight-foot, copper grounding rods run below the ground at the bottom of each array.

His solar-power system can produce 8 to 8½ kilowatts at a time, he said, depending on the amount of sunshine. He gets, on average, between 75 and 100 kilowatts per day from solar power, “And I get more in the summer,” he said. One rack rotates itself to face into the sunlight. “That’s the best one I’ve got,” he said.

Freihofer put his first five arrays up in 2000, and cooked a Thanksgiving dinner entirely with privately produced power. The newer 10 racks were put up in 2004. He said that his Beyond Petroleum solar panels are of much lower quality than the other 14 arrays, made by Siemens.

The solar panels require very little maintenance, Freihofer added. “Occasionally, I have a guy who comes up here and greases them,” he said.

Freihofer also has a 10-kilowatt, three-bladed, 125-foot Bergey Windpower Co. turbine that generates AC (alternating current) power, which then flows into the basement, where it is converted into DC (direct current). Ten kilowatts AC become 7.5 kilowatts DC.

AC is commonly used for transmission across long distances due to its ability to travel without losing power, unlike DC. But since batteries can only store and supply DC power, the AC must be inverted. There are six inverters in the basement that handle the change from AC to DC.

Noise generated by the turbine is almost inaudible from the house. The windmill that Freihofer owned before this one, a 20-kilowatt turbine by Jacobs Wind Systems, was much louder, he said. It had to be replaced after a lightning strike, as it wasn’t properly grounded.

“My electrician grounded the turbine like a cell tower,” Freihofer said in reference to the subterranean ring of copper grounding around the base of the new windmill. “On each of the legs, I have an eight-foot copper rod that goes in the ground,” he said. The concrete footings go down 15 feet underground and “look like giant, upside-down mushrooms,” he said.

An underground chain-link fence fitted with more copper grounding rods provides additional grounding. “This tower is so well-protected from lightning strikes it’s unbelievable,” Freihofer said. “Grounding is cheap. I’m protecting myself and my family.”

While lightning can threaten an improperly grounded windmill, these turbines can pose threats of their own. Videos on YouTube show turbines blowing apart, sending large pieces of metal flying in all directions. Concerns about such hazards were voiced at a recent town board meeting in Berne.

But when winds approach speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour on Freihofer’s property, the tail attached to the backside of his turbine is designed to spin it away from the wind, preventing the turbine from spinning out of control, Freihofer said.

“Oh yeah — I’ve got a wind gauge,” Freihofer said proudly. As he outlined the details of the power-monitoring system in his basement, the gauge read wind speeds from 19 to 26 miles per hour.

He also has a turbo-charged, inline six-cylinder, diesel generator for backup. When turned on, it puts out a constant 48 kilowatts. “This thing could run the town of Knox,” said Ed Ackroyd, a friend of Freihofer. Ackroyd used to run Northeast Power Supply, and is now a consultant for Thor Power. He advised Freihofer on installing the battery system in the basement.

Thirteen battery banks store the DC power until it is needed for use in the house. Each stack of batteries, manufactured by C&D Technologies, contains six sealed-cell batteries. Each battery is made up of four, two-volt cells.

“These are highly regulated for earthquake protection,” Ackroyd said of Freihofer’s batteries. “These could withstand an earthquake in California,” he said. The batteries are also protected from lightning by Maxivolt MV-100 surge suppressors.

Freihofer did not want to reveal the overall cost of his alternative energy system. “It’s expensive,” he said.

As for selling off the excess power generated by his system, he said, “I’m not interested in that. That would make me a business.” And, since his windmill and solar panels are controlled from the basement, NYSERDA would require 24-hour access to his home for grid intertie. “I’m just not doing that,” he said.

Freihofer expects a 20-year payback on all his equipment, unless the cost of electricity goes up. A customer of National Grid, Freihofer pays only the basic, monthly connection charge of $16.33,” he said. “In spring, summer, and fall, I do very well.”

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