Power house

Wind and solar power allow a family to live comfortably off the grid

Robert Tehune, left, and his dad, Wayne Tehune, check the tracking on their solar panels as the windmill whirs in the background.

Robert Tehune, left, and his dad, Wayne Tehune, check the tracking on their solar panels as the windmill whirs in the background.

Photo By David Robert

The dirt road off Pyramid Highway meanders between power poles for several miles. Then, the power poles end. About two miles beyond, on a hilltop, lives the Terhune family.

Amid sagebrush and giant blazing stars blooming yellow, two dual-axis solar panels and a windmill create plenty of energy for the family of four.

“We just wanted to get off the grid,” Dr. Wayne Terhune says. They moved here from suburbia two years ago, seeking a more peaceful, safer life. Wind and solar power was cheaper than paying Sierra Pacific to bring in power for $60,000-$80,000.

For the first year, the family used the windmill and one tracking solar panel. Each tracker has eight solar panels, collecting 1,000 watts per hour, which equals one kilowatt-hour of electricity. They added another tracker last summer. The two solar trackers are grounded six feet deep in concrete, costing a total of $35,000. The rotating panels of the solar trackers maximize solar output from dusk to dawn, turning and pivoting toward the sun.

“That the way to go if you’re gonna do it,” says Dr. Terhune.

The windmill, erected on a 50-foot tower, fills in the gaps during storms and overcast days. It collects the same amount of power as one solar tracker while the wind blows. Today, it whirls and chirps, with moderate winds. Dr. Terhune says that on rare occasions, when it’s really cranking, it sounds like a World War II fighter plane. Mostly, they no longer notice the sound of the windmill, which cost $2,000 and additional expenses to erect the tower.

Instead of natural gas, their appliances use propane. While the sun shines and wind blows, the Terhune family runs everything they need. They don’t use two appliances at the same time without pulling from batteries.

Three days-worth of power is stored in 12 batteries in the garage. Each battery is about three times the size of a large car battery. These batteries power the home while the sun isn’t shining, and the wind is calm. Over the past year, they had to run the generator once for two hours during an overcast, windless day.

Equipment that converts wind and solar energy into alternate forms of power to run appliances and store in batteries takes up a surprisingly small amount of garage space. From here, underground wires run to the house and septic pump. All of the conversion equipment and batteries were included in the solar-tracking expense.

Although their eco-friendly power choices weren’t environmentally motivated, the Terhunes now appreciate the environmental benefits. Most homes on the grid use 50 kilowatt-hours on average per day.

“We use 12 kilowatt-hours per day since we moved,” says Robert Terhune, Wayne’s son. He’s pursuing a masters degree in electrical engineering and is looking into green career options.

For two years, the Terhunes have been living beyond the grid without any problems or hitches. Do they miss Sierra Pacific? “Not a bit,” says Dr. Terhune with a grin. “You’ve gotta be kidding.”