Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Going solar in Seattle

I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.
— Thomas Edison

So, I'm doing a new series. Not that I need another one, but because I think my next step in sustainable living is to try something that is altogether new (for me, at least) and difficult (for us up here in the Pacific NW) and fun. And, that is, trying to go solar up here where the sun don't shine all that often. Basically, if I can get solar energy alternatives to work for me, it should work for anyone.

I know there are plenty of people out there who are using solar energy for a variety of things, but they live in more southern or southwestern climes where it totally makes sense to use them. But, does it make sense to use solar energy in an area where it's cloudy most of the year? Does it work?

Well, folks, I'm going to give it a whirl. So, starting in early spring, I'll be attempting to use the sun to provide some of my energy resources. Now, we may not have sunny weather much of the year, but we do get a lot of light and long days, so I'm hoping that makes up for the lack of intensity.

I'll be starting off using a solar cooker (more on that later), moving onto solar hot water heating in July and perhaps even some solar lighting and recharging if it's in the budget. I'll be posting solar cooker recipes later in the year, after I figure out what works for me. And I'll be sharing my successes and failures with you as well.

Now, before you think I'm getting all fancy with expensive some solar panel action, let me tell you that I'm going solar on a restricted budget. Not everyone (myself included) has $20,000 to spend on a solar set-up, so I'll be telling you how much my equipment costs and whether or not it's worth the purchase.

So, are you using solar power for anything? What are you using it for, what do you have and where are you located? Are you interested in replacing some of your energy needs with solar power?


Jen said...

I'm not currently using any solar energy (shame on me) but I'll be following your findings very closely, especially since we live in the same fair city! I can't wait to benefit from your experiments!

The Rambling Taoist said...

I'd love to go solar, but it's cost-prohibitive. Besides, if you think you rarely see the sun up north in Seattle, we see it even less down here in South Bend! :-)

knutty knitter said...

We had an epic hot water failure and replaced with a solar water system two years back. (It had to be replaced anyhow so why not change). Our bills are way down and only every so often (about five or six times a year) do we have to do an electric heat for a couple of hours.

We live in the deep (read antartic maritime) south. It is rarely hot or cold here but hovers on the low side.

You do get really careful with showers and hot water use but every so often you get to have long hot showers to use surplus heat before it overflows to the outside world and kills some grass (need to redirect that pipe sometime:).

Free hot water is great!

viv in nz

Anonymous said...

It has potential (pun intended). It's a challenge which might shine. (Okay, I'll stop.)

Anyway, there might be some relatively inexpensive ways to creep in that direction. I'm thinking of solar ovens - which can range from a cardboard box topped with plastic wrap and lined with Pop-Tart wrappers), to a fancy parabolic reflector setup. I'm also thinking of sun vents, to get more sunlight into the house - for warmth and plants... You see? There's more to solar energy than electricity; you just have to think outside the (circuit) box...

BrooklynLorax said...

Washington State might offer rebates. New York State does. Think solar hot water heater. I've read that heating water is a more efficient use of solar energy than electricity conversion. If you really want to go nuts, install radiant heat floors using the newly derived solar hot water. There are some architects that specialize in this. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

My only use of solar energy is a solar powered battery recharger. There's isn't a huge amount of sunshine in the UK either, but there is enough light to work this so I can recharge the batteries needed to power small things around my home (light lights for my bicycle, alarm clock, etc.). It was inexpensive and I didn't need to make any big changes to my life so it worked well for me as a way to start using solar energy.

Michelle said...

I will watch this with interest! Ideas for a "normal" budget will be great!

Anonymous said...

As BrooklynLaurax has already said, solar hot water is the way to go. It's getting quite popular here in Ireland. The figure that's often quoted is that in the Irish climate you can expect to meet c 80% of your hot water needs with solar, and we get even less sun than you do.
We are interested in this, but think we may not stay long enough in our current house to make it worthwhile right now (though the way the economy is going, perhaps we'll sit tight a looong time!)
I'll certainly be interested to see how you get on

Wendy said...

- Solar-powered radio.
- Solar back-up battery for the laptop.
- Solar "lighting" during the day. We have a lot of windows and skylights ;).
- Passive solar heating in one of the rooms and in the chicken coop.
And best ...
- Solar clothes drying (during the warmer months ... but during the winter, we use heat from the woodstove to dry our clothes).

I would like to look into a solar water pre-heater for our tankless propane waterheater.

But for power generation, after much research and contemplation, as much as I like the idea of a full PV array, I don't think solar is our best option here in the northeast. I'm thinking a human-powered generator for some electrical appliances would be a great addition - exercise to watch television :).

TDP said...

The company First Solar is located a few miles from me. I've been looking at their website over the past few months. They make thin film solar materials. Most of their clients are in places like Germany. Their type of thin film solar stuff is best used in areas that have lower intensity solar exposure. The intense sun of Arizona actually burns out their material fast. So, for y'all who think that intense sun is needed to make solar work, 'tis not really true!

Lots of people have solar hot water here in Phoenix.

The only way I use solar so far is to expose my skin to it to make vitamin D and sit in a sunbeam to dry my hair.
I'd love to get an electric bike or bug-ev and recharge by solar panel on my carport. But, babysteps.

Good luck, Crunchy!

Anonymous said...

I love my solar powered radio (which happens to be a cheery bright yellow). It works great in the summer but I do have trouble finding a good window for it in winter. Also it does not always pick up my favorite AM NPR station.

During the summer, the clothes dry on the racks and line outside. During the winter, we can dry the clothes on racks inside due to the dryness of the air. Unfortunately, during the warm, wet springs and fall, I have a few weeks when the clothes just won't dry inside even if placed over a register or in front of a sunny window.

Any ideas of how to power my stand mixer with solar power? I use it to knead bread due to some pinched nerve problems.


Anonymous said...

Right now I am finding it best to "go solar" in the natural sense. I use natural sun light for nearly all tasks, and rarely use a lamp or overhead light -- just early morning.

I tried outdoor solar lights but they failed completely, a total waste of money.

Here in NY, I don't see much reason to invest a huge amount in solar energy when I use little energy anyway. I only turn on the hot water when I need it, and I keep the thermostat VERY low in the winter and wear layers.

I guess my motto is conservation, not alternative sources.

If a solar heating system was at the same price level as other systems AND I needed a new system, I'd look into it. It would not pay off for me.

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

I have 2 solar ovens, my favorite is the Global Sun Oven, which I used pretty often to bake and cook during last spring-summer-fall. It cost about $250.

I also have a home-made window "heat grabber" set up in one of our Southern windows. It works ok - brings in 120 degree air for several hourse during each sunny day, although it would work better with a fan to facilitate the air movement. Right now I am using it as a seed starting area. I estimate this took about $125 to make.

We are in OKC, Zone 7.

Greenpa said...

Really just one piece of advice- you don't HAVE to re-invent all these processes. There are, I guarantee, a bunch of people near you who have already tried everything you're talking about.

If you haven't discovered them yet, you should look into "Real Goods", in California. They sold the first consumer solar panels, back in the 70's; they teach classes, have a "Solar Living Center" where you can see everything. And they used to, anyway, have excellent tech support, no matter how advanced you got.

Don't know if you can still just call and ask to talk. They helped considerably when we built our solar/off grid greenhouse business in '92.

Lots of regions have "Alternative Energy Fairs"- I'd bet there's one near you.

Anna Marie said...

My parents live in Montesano, Wa (which is even wetter than Seattle), and they use passive solar to heat their house in winter.

It's quite simple, really: in the living room, there are three 3 X 6 foot windows, facing due south. That, in addition to the wood stove, keeps the house warm pretty much all winter.

Green Bean said...

Can't believe Thomas Edison said that umpteen years ago!

I have is a solar battery charger that sucks. It sometimes works, sometimes not. I also try to take advantage of the sun in cold times by opening all the shutters in the south/west in the am. Not "solar energy" per se but I do try.

We also installed a solar tube last year and LOVE it! It gives off so much light, it's amazing. My husband installed it in one day.

I'd love to step it up and get a solar hot water heater. We have plenty of sun here so it's next on our list.

Looking forward to following your solar cooking adventures.

Anonymous said...

Here in sunny Colorado solar clothes drying is a given (for us anyway!) We can dry our clothes outside year round!

When we go car camping or backpacking we use those solar showers and I'm thinking of rigging something up at home for an outdoor solar shower that will also provide some grey-water irrigation for nonfood garden areas.

Ultimately, when we get a new roof I would consider solar panels and some passive solar adjustments on the roof line to keep some of that summer sun out of the house. We don't have AC but it would still be nice if the house was cooler during the day.


Joe said...

Just a bit further South, near Portland, we had an electrician check the feasibility of a solar install, and it's iffy, due to our neighbors trees.
Otherwise, we line-dry, and I've played around with a solar cooker.

Anonymous said...

We recently purchased a rechargeable solar lantern for emergencies and lighting in places where we do not have electricity (i.e., the potting shed) as well as a solar battery and electronics charger. I have them both set up in a sunny window and they work great.

I would love to hear more about your solar hot water set-up. We currently have a 10+ year old electric hot water heater which is expensive and inefficient.

We also live in S. California so we really have no excuse (other than time and money) not to do more solar.

Anonymous said...

I made a solar cooker from a pizza box last year, but it got so steamy inside that food turned all goopy and gross, and I got tired of having a weird pizza box in my kitchen so I wound up recycling it.

I line dry clothes and that's about it. If we need to replace hot water or roofing, we would love to think about it. We are contemplating installing some panels on the south side of our house -- we are in Denver, Colo., so it is sunny but cold in winter, and our home is a 50s bunker-like structure that could absorb some heat. We just need the time, energy (human as well as solar) and money to put it together ...

Kristijoy said...

I went to a Science pub on solar in Oregon. I don't remember what all I learned, mostly because I am a renter and the point is somewhat moot unless I move to the neighborhood where they will be installing a solar array on the Sunnyside environmental school's roof to benefit the whole neighborhood... so cool.

anyways the gist I got was, that it's placement of the panels/heater whatever, it key. you should get a solar meter or summat to find out where to install these things. And Portland gets more overcast and rainy days than Seattle and this guy was saying it's totally do able, for most of the year. He was from Solar Oregon, so you might check 'em out.

Robj98168 said...

Yes. Go crunchy Go crunchy!

I currently use small amounts of Solar- The garden lights are solar, along with two lights on my deck. I also have solar lighting in my shed, and a solar spot light shing from the garage. All work fine even in winter. You should start with a solar generator. Easy to make and cost effective!

Laura said...

Heard about a Veranda Solar Petal? I am always skeptical of the latest, greatest tech but this seems not too bad. And if they are actually in production and available, the price should be reasonable.

Anonymous said...

Hi Crunchy,

We live in northern Vermont and yet we still "went solar" almost 2 yrs ago. We installed a net-metering system which means we feed back to "the grid". We didn't have the space (nor did we want to deal with)an off-the-grid system. We have a 4kwhr PV setup in addition to a solar hot water preheat system.

We got a little $ back from the state (the amount appears to vary state to state) in addition to a one time federal tax credit of $2K for the PV system and another $2K for the hot water.

When all was said and done, the final outlay of cash was in the mid 20s. We looked at it as either the price of a new car or a year of college tuition. Since we drive our cars into the ground and we have no children-we figured it was the way to go.

We never get tired of walking down to the electric pole and watching it spin backwards.

We usually lose power generating ability with the first snow (November time frame).The panels will usually melt clear-but it's so gray here-and the days are so short-that a "good day" is about .5kwhr. Come Dec the snow isn't melting-so our panels stay "dead" till sometime in February. Nothing irks me more to have bright sunshine with the panels buried beneath inches of snow-out of reach up on the roof!

That being said-I figure by March we'll be back to generating power again.

Our average useage is 13kwhr/day. Come summer time..we will be generating quite a bit more than that. We didn't pay an electric bill for 7 months thanks to our panels.

Our hot water system is oil fired. In addition to solar preheat, the tank is on a timer. Our oil man rarely visits us now-especially since we're heating with wood this winter.

We also have a solar oven. I love it!!!!

I'm excited for you!!! Don't be discouraged because of the Seattle weather...ours is similar..and we still love it!!!

Spot-On said...

I line dry clothes and that's it. Bought some driveway/patio lights that were solar and they lasted about 3 months then just stopped working, complete waste of money. I really wonder if ANY of the solar lights are worth it! I hope to do some cooking with solar this summer!

Nurit "1 family. friendly. food." said...

Hello from Bellevue.
Not using any solar power at the moment. I would love to hear more from you about it.
I used to live in a sunnier country where we used solar power for the water heater. I think that was pretty much it.

Nurit "1 family. friendly. food." said...

Oh, yeah (me again), and we hung clothes to dry in the outside air.

Anonymous said...

I am very interested in solar as we have several windows located on the south side of our home, but, unfortunately, the budget does not allow at the moment. In the meantime I make sure to open the shades and curtains on that side of the house in the morning and afternoon. There is a gentleman in our area (Western Massachusetts) who is in the process of developing a window panel-type device for around $250 to place in sunny windows to help heat that portion of the house. It's still in the manufacturing phase, but sounds promising. Winters are cold here (sometimes as low at -20 or below), but we have plenty of sunshine most days. Keep us posted on your solar endeavors Crunchy. I'm very interested. Debbie C

cindy24 said...

Live in Southern California and not using solar like I should. Sky lights and clothes line is all. Had some solar lights that broke. Can't wait to learn more. This product seemed interesting, although expensive.

would love to find a product that would generate some power that I could plug certain appliances into....

Robj98168 said...

Personally I would like to have solar panels and a wind turbine. Just like ed begley, jr. I am thinking of going solar in the shop- solar power for like my rechargeble power tools and such, maybe lighting- Like I already said I have solar light in my shed. There are other uses: Sloar lighting - i.e. Solar tube, skylights, solar/wind clothes dryers (a clothes line)- I also have a radio thaat powers with solar, hand crank or batteries. My neighbor just got solar panels on her roof last year- she loves it!

Erika said...

The extent of my solar power is a clothesline and a solar cooker that was used to cook rice and a couple of soups... then Mrs. Wigglesnort got ahold of the frame while I was out... doggie teeth + aluminum foil + cardboard = no more solar cooker. Perhaps I'll try again with scrap wood instead. :-)

I keep trying to get my DH on board with using solar energy for our next house (we're in the process of trying to build... very early stages), but he seems to think that the Pacific Northwest isn't quite the place to even think about solar power. I can't wait to see how you fare!

Best of luck!


Heather said...

Hi Crunchy, a few thoughts re. solar ovens. You don't have to spend $250 to get a decent one, but a DIY one can't just be a cardboard box, some shiny wrappers and cling film if you want to actually cook with it. The key principles are:

1. Insulation. If you're using cardboard boxes, use two, with a couple of inches (at least) of fill between them, and the outer box lined with something shiny (e.g. aluminium foil) to prevent heat loss.

2. Depth. Ideally your oven space will be no more than 4-6 inches deep, although it can be as long and wide as you like.

3. Reflectors. You want them as big as you can comfortably deal with, and, if you're doing a box cooker, preferably having them on all four sides, not just one.

4. Double glazing. Actual glass is much more durable than thin plastic, although we started with plastic from large packing bags as that was what we had available. You want the two pieces to be a bit under an inch apart, and separated by something that won't let the heat escape out the sides. Double glazing gets heaps hotter than single glazing.

There's a very informative (but poorly written) article from India (I think) on designing and building solar cookers here:

I made ours based on these plans:

and you can read about it on my husband's blog here:

and there is a wiki of solar recipes here:

If you have the time, it'd probably be a great project to do with the kids! Everyone here is amazed how we do meals and baking and stuff just in a cardboard box using the sun :-) It cost me about $20 in materials, and would have probably taken 1-2 days of able-bodied person time. Although to be honest, we don't get steady clear days often enough for it to really be much more than a toy.

From a solar-oven enthusiast!

Red said...

While I am not currently using solar energy, i have big plans for our new house this summer. Starting with solar lights outside and smaller solar panels. I look forward to hearing about your experiences!

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

51% of the days of the year are overcast in Central Ohio, throw in our winter ice storms that coat everything in a layer of ice and full time solar panels are little more than pretty decoration on the roof for half of the year.

However, I do use solar garden lights (they only work during the summer.) And in winter I use passive solar heat instead of a space heater to help heat up my bedroom. The details are here

Jenny R said...

We live in an apartment, so the best we can do is pay the electric/gas company offsets for our portion of energy to come from renewable sources. And...we have a sun jar (very cool!), which acts like a nightlight in our living room.

Anonymous said...

Right now, my solar use is limited to drying my clothes on a line, using natural light instead of turning lights on during the day, and a small solar gadget (solio) that charges my cell phone. Half of solio's charge fills up my treo, and in the winter solio's been taking 2 afternoons to reach a full charge.

My house is in a decent position for solar, but (aside from the expense) I'm not sure solar panels would like the way the wind always whips down my street - even on a seemingly calm day, my porch chairs move. I think my next venture into solar might be a solar water heater, or pre-heater for a tankless water heater.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm biased (I do install solar hot water and solar electric systems in Seattle as a profession), but I know it works up here. I've done the math.

I'm looking to build a new solar oven this summer too. I want something portable so I can take it to job sites and have a fresh out of the oven meal for lunch. One of the best meals I ever had from a solar oven was a full turkey!

All of the comments here have great ideas when you can't go "whole hog" right away. Start small and let your solar grow with time!

Cheri said...

This is great! I too live in Seattle and have thought often about using solar energy so I will be very interested in how it works for you and the cost!

Anonymous said...

Do you know about Solar Richard of Tacoma, who's making his mission to spread solar usage in the Pacific Northwest?

Anonymous said...

The URL about Solar Richard of Tacoma didn't paste completely. I'll try again:

If it still doesn't appear, you can google "For a Devotee of Solar Energy, A Shot at Earning Respect."

Anonymous said...

Great quote at the start of this post :)

Anonymous said...

I am very interested in reading about how this goes for you. We have been tracking our electric, gas, and water consumption almost daily for about a year now. Our goals was to see what we were using and be able to reduce the consumption (which we have!!) and to see just how big of a solar set-up we would need. I'm looking forward to reading about the solar oven, especially, because I bake a bit and have an electric oven.

Anonymous said...

Caution (Wendy) with using wood burning fireplaces to heat: the smoke from burning wood is extremely toxic when inhaled and produces gases and carbon dioxide that are polluting as the emissions from a coal fired power plant.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget "passive" solar - aka, sit in the sun. If you have windows, you can "go solar".
Open those shades in winter, to get "solar-assisted" heat. (Upgrade the windows, to keep more of it through the night.) Paint your siding a dark color, to absorb the low winter sun. Clear the junk away from windows, to get more light. Put a dark pillow on a window seat.
By the way, kudos to you for not buying the "no solar in Seattle" line. Being farther north means we have a longer day to produce energy. Our foggy days are actually brighter than thunderstorm clouds. Even more light reflects from the water, and from the snow if you get it. And finally, the less-polluted air means more sun reaches panels here than it does on a sunny day in NYC.

And of course, we appreciate the sun more here.

Anonymous said...

Remember that all wind is solar power; one of those new-fangled urban turbines might be more suitable for Seattle than SolarPV, et al.

rebecca leigh said...

I can't remember the exact circumstances, but I thought you would be interested in a solar panels and other practical technologies that have been developed in Colombian ecovillage over the last three decades. Check out Gaviotas (here:, and here:
I mention this here because they were able to develop a solar panel that was handmade out of cheap building materials, but very suited to the overcast climate of both the llanos (plains that used to be extensions of the rainforest) and Bogota.
On a really awesome sidenote, they accidentally started re-growing the rainforest.
I highly recommend the book (same name) about the village by Alan Weisman.

Anonymous said...

I like your blog. Our Seattle home uses just 14% of the utility energy that it did in 2001. Much of the difference is due to increased efficiency, but we get 75% of our hot water and 67% of our electricity from the sun. We also get about 25% of our space heating from the sun coming through the windows. We're hosting a tour on March 7th if you are interested. Here is the link: