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A Personal Quest for Fossil Fuel Independence

ALEX CHADWICK, host: Here are a couple of government statistics on energy use in this country. Energy Americans get from fossil fuels--oil, natural gas, coal--more than 85 percent.

MADELEINE BRAND, host: Energy we get from solar power, less than one-tenth of one percent.

CHADWICK: But New Mexico-based writer Doug Fine wanted to be in that small minority of people who do use solar energy, and he sent us this story.

Mr. DOUG FINE (Writer): It's not cheap getting off the grid, but I saved up the six grand and bought the necessary solar panels, inverters, and golf cart batteries. Okay, I'm sawing the frames for my solar panels. It's a beautiful day, and the sun's just sitting there like a solar takeout bar. Why wouldn't I use it? After I'd built the 8-foot frame for the panels, I had to lug them 130 feet up a hill. That's where they'd soak up the most sun. My guide in all this was electrician, Craig Wentz. He brought along this cool solar pathfinder device. It's a sort of portable observatory, the size of a dinner plate. It helped us to determine exactly where the panels would drink in the most rays.

Mr. CRAIG WENTZ (Electrician): Just look straight down on that little bubble in the center. There's a tree right there that's about, about 5:30 in the summertime, you're going to be shaded by that tree.

Mr. FINE: And so, we found the best spot to put the solar panel array. We bang rebar into the ground to secure the frame from fierce desert winds. Barrel cactus bit into my arms as I swung the sledgehammer. The solar panels themselves were a beautiful cobalt blue, and now that they were set up, we needed to transmit the sun's energy to the four giant batteries I had back down at the house. And here's where Craig said things get really dangerous.

Evidently, if the batteries got overloaded, I would die, because of something called an arc state.

Mr. WENTZ:And if you get that arc, it's going to explode.

Mr. FINE: And spray you with sulfuric acid.

Mr. WENTZ: You got to have sulfuric acid all over the place, and molten copper.

Mr. FINE: Oh. Okay. I never knew that clean energy carried these risks. For my own sake, I guess I had to understand the principles of electricity, so Craig gave me a basic lesson in the all-important Ohm's Law.

Mr. WENTZ: Volts times amps is equal to watts. The volts is your potential for the electricity to flow. Amps is the actual flow of electrons, okay? And the watts, that's the relationship between your volts and amps. That's how much work is being done, okay?

Mr. FINE: Okay. Yeah, my eyes were glazing over. But I did understand that I needed an inverter. Basically, it's a 40-pound black box that would take my battery's DC energy, and allow my commercial electronic equipment to use it.

Mr. WENTZ: It's taking your DC, and it's making a sine wave, okay? And it's not a perfect sine, but they're getting really close to doing that, okay? It steps up many, many times...

Mr. FINE: I took his word for it. By sundown, wires were plugged into all the gear, and we buried a grounding rod in case of lightening strike, but would it actually work? In the last light of day, we ran one outlet from the inverter. We did this as fast as Craig's 30 years of caution allowed. Then came the moment. I decided to run the test on iTunes.

Mr. WENTZ: Do we have solar power off the grid energy?

Mr. FINE: Here we go.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WENTZ: Woohoo. We're plugged in, buddy. We're all plugged in.

Mr. FINE: Wow.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FINE: We stepped outside and felt so grateful to that yellow star of ours. I felt free of guilt. No coal was burning to bring me the Internet. No Alaskan refuge was threatened to keep my ice cream cool, and other than sweat, I wasn't sending a particle of ethylant into the atmosphere. Ah, quiet. The wind was all I heard; no generator engine. It was paradise for a moment.

Mr. FINE: Oh, so wait a second, now. We're all rigged up. I'm thinking we're done. We're not even, I'm not even close to done.

Mr. WENTZ: No, no, you've got to--now, buddy, you've got to wire your house. This is just your, this is just your power supply.

Mr. FINE: Oh, no.

Mr. WENTZ: Oh, I'll be optimistic. Let's say you can do it in three days.

Mr. FINE: It's been a week, and I'm still working on it.

For NPR News, I'm Doug Fine.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Doug Fine, the energetic author of the book, Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Doug Fine