RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Getting Past ‘Drill Baby Drill’

The BP oil catastrophe has taken the media away from all the other energy-driven catastrophes. The mountain top removers of the coal industry are delighted, and the gas drillers that make water pipes exude methane into kitchen sinks are gleeful, but neither of them have answers for energy in the future.

Check it out: Can you think of a state that’s untouched by environmental catastrophe? Or, for that matter, a nation in the world? How about the low-wage and truly environmentally-challenged … India? China? Africa?

The true answer to energy independence is not “Drill Baby Drill” or “Spill Baby Spill” or even, as the BP neighbors say, “Dredge Baby Dredge.” It’s more like, “Learn, Baby, learn,” “Think, baby, conserve,” and, then, “Step up to the plate, Baby, and give the alternatives a shot.”

Last month, our farm was the beneficiary of hours of work donated by a group called Show-Me Solar, who want to make solar power understandable to the average Missouri Joe. I’ll bet there’s a group like this in your state.

First, I took their class, learned (sort of, if I have my notes in front of me) the difference between an amp, a watt and a volt. The leader of Show-Me Solar is Jeffrey Owens, a junior high math teacher by day, who managed to keep us non-techies awake. All I wanted, really, was to have someone make a list of what to order and how much it would cost, but it turns out that alternative energy takes more thought than the switch on the wall. Right now, electricians don’t know how to hook a photovoltaic to an inverter or why.

It won’t always be that way, thanks to grassroots efforts like Show-Me Solar. After I volunteered to buy the equipment to convert one of our buildings to solar, Jeff put together a crew of workers and a classroom full of learners. This conversion will allow me to remove a low-hanging wire from a path on our farm. The wire hangs dangerously low, if you’re on a tractor. The conversion also provides a place to re-charge electric tools from a solar source. We generally use this building as a harvest house, and a classroom as an overflow from the farmhouse, so it doesn’t take as much power as, say, a full house or office.

I ordered the materials — batteries from the battery store, an inverter from a home outfitter, other pieces from Internet sites, photovoltaic cells, wire and conduit. There was already an electrical system in the building that runs lights, plugs and a fan. The new stuff cost about $500 total.

The workers arrived on day one and started installation, getting about halfway through before the learners arrived. I have to say that the worker mood was, compared to the average guy that hooks stuff up in barns, exhilarated. They (a computer programmer, a utility worker and a retired military guy) had taken days off from their “real jobs” and they were having a blast. The utility worker had gotten a map to our place on the Internet and the map was thoroughly wrong. So, he had met all the neighbors and a lot of people I’d never heard of on his journey. He was positively giddy with the adventure of it.

The learners joined in on day two. These were folks pretty much like you and me. Two nurses. A teacher. Some day, we think to ourselves, when everyone sees how alternative energy works … then we can get off the grid …

A couple of the neighbors stopped by and we all had lunch courtesy of the farm, then the workers showed the learners what they had accomplished. I’m sorry to say that I had to leave before everything was finished, but when I came back the system was up and-running. So far, we’ve only used it when the sun is out, so I’m not sure how long the batteries will last when we’re running completely on stored power, but — hey! — We’re recharging our power tools with sunlight!

Now that I see it hasn’t blown up, and I know how to turn it on and off, I’m ready for the next project. Instead of just powering our drills and weed whackers, we could power our electric chore cart. And, someday, we can plug in a highway vehicle, a freezer, a mill. All that from solar power.

Thanks to a system called “net metering,” which you probably have in your state, I’ll hook my bigger system into the utility grid and actually get credit from the utility company for power produced by our system! Now think about that.

If you have an office that’s in use, say 40 hours per week, and a photovoltaic system or wind system that’s charging every day, well, you might come out even. Or how about a home that charges all day and discharges for a few hours a night. Or a car with solar panels on the roof that charge in the parking lot while you work, then takes you home and powers your TV.

So that’s how we should be using our precious fossil fuels — getting to the next step. Our little system is like the model T, the Spirit of St. Louis, Pong.

I’m just sayin’ … it could be good…

(For more information see or the Evergreen Institute, 9124 Armadillo Trail, Evergreen CO 80439, which offers instruction on residential renewable energy and green building through courses and hands-on workshops at affiliates around the country; phone 303-883-8290; or see

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2010

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