Empowered by Alternative Energy

February 06, 2007 11:00 pm
Clarke Moore stands on the stairs that lead to his "off the grid" home on South Fork Road. Moore's home uses hydroelectric power from the adjacent Rock Creek as well as solar power from panels atop his roof for his family's daily power needs. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).
Clarke Moore stands on the stairs that lead to his "off the grid" home on South Fork Road. Moore's home uses hydroelectric power from the adjacent Rock Creek as well as solar power from panels atop his roof for his family's daily power needs. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

A lack of power lines at the South Fork of Smith River means an unmarred view of the turquoise water and steep, forested mountain sides.

It also means a lack of power.

Not that resident Clarke Moore minds.

For the past 25 years in a shed along Boulder Creek, Moore has run a contraption that links a magnetic wheel turned by the waterway's force to wires, a car alternator and batteries.

"I figured it out," Moore said of his use of gravity, water flow and pressure to create electricity. "That's why I say anybody can do this."

Each of the four, six-volt, 150-pound batteries stores electricity, a small reservoir to run lights and appliances in Moore's home.

"I've been off the grid all of my adult life and I've learned," Moore said.

California aims to prompt others to learn in a fast-growing field.

Arne Jacobson, assistant professor in the environmental resources engineering program at Humboldt State University, has watched the industry grow about 30 percent each year across the U.S. over the past decade.

"Renewable energy is absolutely moving from being an alternative to being more mainstream," said Jacobson, who serves as a faculty member with the university's Schatz Energy Research Center. "It's growing about as fast as an industry can grow."

Most of the growth stems from incentives and laws — plans that turn back meters for solar-generated production, for instance, or requirements for a certain amount of energy to come from renewable sources.

A nearly $3 billion state plan aims to install 3,000 megawatts of new solar facilities by 2017. Offers include $3.25 per watt for nonprofit and government groups and $2.50 per watt for others. That pays nearly a third of the $8.50 per watt cost for a home's solar photovoltaic system, a project that could total $10,000 to $40,000.

The efforts aim to drive down the costs by stimulating demand for alternative power sources and sparking investments in the industry. Jacobson expects the cost to drop to about $4 per watt within a decade.

"There's a lot of public support," he said, noting proposed wind, solar and water-based projects along the Northcoast region from Mendocino through Del Norte counties. "To be an example and to be a test site for a lot of these technologies."

First movers?

The Northcoast hosts the largest per capita number of off-the-grid installations in the U.S. — likely about 30,000 systems in Menocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

"This is not a new thing on the Northcoast," Jacobson said of the use of renewable energy sources over power generated from fossil fuels.

Environmental concerns and remote home locations have so far provided the main motivations for using renewable energy sources. Now, Jacobson expects the effort to partner with businesses to create high-tech and manufacturing jobs — the sooner, the better for both local environmental and economic reasons.

"Climate change is a reality we need to address," Jacobson said of the effects of gases from burning fossil fuels. "These sorts of technologies can play an important role."

The effort needs more state-level policies, along with public and private investment for research, development and education, Jacobson said.

"It's advantageous for us to act quickly," he said of the chance to build the materials and tools in California. "We want to be the first movers."

‘A work in progress'

Now 57 and sporting a long ponytail, Moore was an early mover in creating a self-powered home in Del Norte County.

The son of a farmer father and a mother who rejected city life grew up in Fresno, moved to San Francisco for the 1967 summer of love and migrated to Del Norte County in 1969.

"I came out of the ‘60s," said Moore, who explains his efforts as stemming partly from necessity and partly from a desire to lessen human impact on the environment. "I feel an obligation."

In 1973, he and his wife set up a tepee on the property near the South Fork.

"It's what we could afford," he said.

They would eventually collect lumber and other materials to build a self-sufficient wooden house with bright rooms, porches and a rock path to the garden.

"This is our work in progress," Moore said.

A thermosiphon system skips the need for pumps, sending water through pipes from a spring to a 40-gallon holding tank. It heats up along the way by passing through a wood stove that Moore feeds with firewood that he cuts.

The system also pipes cold water into a tank on the roof — a 40-gallon thermos heated by connections to a photovoltaic panel — and back down to a holding tank in the bathroom. A hot tub in a shed in the backyard hosts its own little aluminum stove and small water tank.

A retired nurse and respiratory therapist, Moore has made a consulting business out of evaluating homes and offices for renewable energy source options. The efforts to conserve energy and switch to sustainable methods make more environmental and economic sense to Moore, who questions the country's dependence on fossil fuels and foreign nations.

"I don't think that's strength. I think that's weakness," Moore said. "I'm just trying to free myself as much as possible. Isn't that what America's supposed to be about?"

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