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Sunday, February 5, 2023


Oct. 4, 2001 – As a whole, the Virgin Islands is not at the forefront of the alternative energy movement, but there are some pockets of people living "off the grid" as the territory, like the rest of the nation, spends October observing Energy Awareness Month.
For St. John resident Ken Damon, the reasons to live by solar and wind power are philosophical. He says that electrical power generation and vehicles contribute most to upper atmosphere pollution, so when he started building on the island in 1979, he and his wife, Sylvia Weaver, decided on alternative energy.
They started out with minimal equipment but over the years have upgraded many times. They now have three houses operating "off the grid," which in alternative energy parlance means running without being hooked up to a public power supply — in this case, the Water and Power Authority.
Damon and Weaver were among the first to see the light, but others are catching on.
"Every time WAPA increases the energy cost, people get interested," St. Croix environmental consultant Ken Haines says.
St. Thomas resident Michael Bumba, who sells alternative energy equipment, sees using the sun and wind for power is an act of patriotism. "In this act of terrorism, the bottom line was oil," he says, referring to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Others agree that troubles in the Middle East and declining oil stocks could cut off the nation's oil supply, which they see as a good reason to install alternative energy. Haines predicts that within the next decade it will become a necessity, rather than a choice, if people expect to keep their lights burning.
Rebate program can cut costs
Haines has taken good advantage of the V.I. Energy Office's rebate program to ready his Christiansted house for that day. This year he was able to buy $16,000 worth of solar panels for only $4,000 after the federally funded rebates.
The story is the same across the territory. People with an interest and enough cash to make the investment are those who reap financial rewards. Yet, while items such as solar hot water heaters and solar panels to power a home call for big bucks, even people on modest budgets can shave dollars off their electric bills by buying compact fluorescent light bulbs.
Once a rare item sold only through mail-order houses, they are becoming as easy to find as regular light bulbs. Even local department stores carry them at prices as low as you'll find anywhere. The V.I. Energy Office offers $10 off each bulb if you buy from their list of approved suppliers — all of whom charge more than that. However, you can find the same items for as little as $6 at local discount stores.
That's still a lot more than the under-$1 price of a regular light bulb. The savings come in their life. While regular light bulbs need frequent replacement, compact fluorescents last for many years.
Estimates vary on how long it will take to recoup what you spent on your solar system, but Haines has calculated that his will pay for itself in 17 years if the cost of WAPA power goes up 3 percent a year.
Dual systems offer options
While alternative energy saves money in the long term, it also provides power when WAPA can't. St. Thomas resident Alfred Neumann has whipped up an inexpensive backup power system for his home consisting of two compact fluorescent lights and a water pump strong enough to flush toilets as well as run the shower and sink. "The water pressure is a little less, but it's still enough to take a shower," he says.
Neumann sells the system for $1,350, but he says the V.I. Energy Office rebate program cuts the cost to around $1,000. His own entire house, like others across the territory, runs on solar power.
St. Croix residents Steffan Larsen and Jan Mitchell live entirely off the grid. He says he spent $35,000 on solar and wind power for their house, but he could have done it for far less. "I have the Rolls Royce of batteries," he says, noting they cost $1,000 each.
Kathy and Roger Damon's house on St. John runs totally on solar power. They first developed an interest thanks to Ken Damon, who is Roger's uncle.
When the couple built their house in the early 1990s, the V.I. government forced them to wire it for both solar and WAPA power. While they now run most of the time on solar, recent mechanical problems have forced them to switch over to WAPA until repairs are made.
They are building a house next door to put into the vacation rental market, and have decided to use only solar hot water, rather than full solar power. Lights and appliances will run off WAPA power because the Damons didn't think vacationers would be energy conscious enough to limit their electrical usage. Kathy Damon says she and her husband are careful to turn off their lights when they're not needed, so as to keep the batteries from draining.
However, both she and Mitchell says they have plenty of power to run conventional kitchen appliances. "I was a doubting Thomas, but I have everything a woman would want in a kitchen," Mitchell says.
Mitchell and Larsen also have a wind generator, which they use to harness about half of the power their home uses. Larsen says he has a winch to lay it down on the ground for hurricanes.
The down side of living off the grid
While wind generators provide cheaper power than solar systems, they are noisy. And even if the noise doesn't bother you, it may annoy your neighbors. "It's better to buy one with a big blade that doesn't turn as fast," because they are quieter, Bumba says.
Alternative energy users agree that it takes a handy person to deal with such systems. While Haines hired a professional to install his system, others were strictly do-it-yourselfers.
Maintenance can also take time and effort. Some batteries are maintenance free, but Kathy Damon notes that the massive bank of batteries that store solar energy for her house requires servicing every six months. This involves cleaning the corrosion off, just as with car batteries. When you have a lot of them and they're big, it's a time-consuming task. "It takes a whole weekend, and it's a dirty job," she says.
Several alternative-energy advocates gave kudos to the Energy Office for its rebate program and its assistance with technical matters. But at least one St. Thomas resident doesn't have much good to say about another branch of the V.I. government that won't allow him to register his GEM electric car.
Architect Doug White has been trying for nearly two years to get the paperwork done at the Police Department's Motor Vehicles Bureau. Bureau officials contend that his solar-powered car doesn't meet road standards, but governments in 38 states allow such vehicles to be registered.
"The government as a whole has no energy-awareness policy," White says.
For a list of suppliers participating in the energy rebate program or for information on alternative energy, call the V.I. Energy Office at 772-2616.

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