From Lesley Neuman’s front porch, the full sweep of the Wallowa Mountains seems close enough to touch. But without solar power, living here would be impossible.
Neuman, an avid horsewoman with a career in graphic arts, bought her 320 acres about 10 miles outside Lostine in 2007.
“Wallowa County just felt like home,” she said. “When I got to the house site and saw the mountains, I cried.”
Getting power to the site was a priority. But sticker-shock set in when she began investigating. Bringing conventional electricity to the site would cost around $40,000.
“And that was just for the poles.” she said.
So she set about finding an alternative power source to make her dream come true. Ultimately, solar seemed the best choice.
Solar power was a relative newcomer to Wallowa County in 2007. With the help of Enterprise Electric and Backwoods Solar of Sandpoint, Idaho, Neuman designed a system with eight 165-watt solar panels and eight deep cell storage batteries linked to the panels to provide electricity when the sun wasn’t shining.
The complete solar system, including a deep well pump and cistern to supply water for home and horses, cost roughly $15,000
“Since then, I’ve added more batteries and two more panels. There’s a huge difference. The newer panels are about the same size, but generate 285 watts. Solar technology has greatly improved in only a few years,” Neuman said.
The solar electrical system is fully contained in a small building constructed between her house and barn. It consists of 14 roof-mounted solar panels that produce close to 4 kilowatt-hours of electricity on a sunny day. The power is routed through a sinewave inverter and stored in 14 large, heavy deep-cell batteries.
“I can pick up a 50-pound feed sack easily,” Neuman said. “But these are a lot heavier — maybe 100 pounds. It’s really hard to pick one up.”
Battery maintenance is critical, she noted. “I check the water levels in them almost daily, and top them off with distilled water when they need it.”
From the batteries, power goes to house and barn.
Living off the grid requires system redundancy. The shed also shelters a hefty 10,000 watt diesel generator that supplements solar panel power when needed.
Like the panels, the generator funnels power into the batteries, which, in turn, provide electricity to house and barn. But even in cloudy weather or winter storms, the generator doesn’t get used much.
“I turn it on about twice per week,” Neuman said. “The last time I put diesel fuel in the generator’s tank was in 2015.”
Ensuring that her water system works is a top priority. With a 650-foot-deep well, Neuman uses a “soft-start pump” that begins pumping water into her cistern at a rate of nearly five gallons per minute, and then switches to a more robust pumping rate.
“It’s a 500 gallon tank,” Neuman said. “I fill it when the water level drops about 20 percent or 100 gallons.” That takes about 20 minutes. But keeping the tank near-full means that in the case of a system malfunction, she and her horses will have sufficient water for days.
Propane provides power for some appliances and heating in this off-grid home. The stove and drier are propane powered, and the propane heater is more efficient than her wood stove, though it has a completely different ambiance.
“I love the wood-stove, Neuman said. “But propane costs less.”
Within the last decade, solar power generation has grown across Wallowa County. Estimates by Renewable Energy Solutions of Enterprise are that in 2011, more than 10,000 megawatt-hours of renewable electricity were generated in Wallowa County, enough to power 27 percent of county households, or about 840 homes. The combined value of renewable heat and electricity generated in Wallowa County is $5.1 million annually (nearly 2 percent of the county’s GDP).
In 2011, Enterprise’s Sun Storage, owned by Lois Perry and Jonathan Monschke, completed the 500-killowat Prairie Creek solar project, which covered 1.5 acres with solar panels and pumped enough energy into Pacific Power’s grid to power 100 homes.
Smaller roof-top and free-standing arrays decorate buildings and properties across the County.
Both Joseph and Wallowa power their wastewater treatment plants with solar arrays. Estimates are that Joseph will save up to $14,000 per year in power costs. Solar panels also supplement power at Wallowa Resources Stewardship Center in Enterprise.
And solar technology continues its rapid evolution. Tesla (the same folks who make electric cars) has developed high-efficiency solar roof shingles. They will be available in 2018.
Last year saw a huge improvement in conventional silicon solar cell efficiency — the new cells developed in Israel convereted 50 percent of incoming energy into electricity, up from the present 30 percent.
In February, 2017, Washington State University researchers produced a new, lower-cost, higher efficiency cadmium-telluride (CdTe) solar cell that may ultimately replace the silicon cells currently used in 90 percent of solar panels.
WANT MORE INFORMATION?
For more information about solar power in Wallowa County:
Renewable Energy Solutions. 401 NE First Street, Enterprise, Oregon 541-426-4100
Wallowa Resources, 401 NE First Street, Enterprise, Oregon 541-426-8053