Berta is one of America's energy treasures. She lives right in the middle of a small town in Connecticut, yet she has taken firm control of her energy destiny. To accomplish this takes effort and consciousness, and Berta has plenty of both. She makes the point that careful attention to the energy we use, and attention to finding better, less wasteful ways, can make sense.|
My main issue all my life has been electricity. I was born and raised in Seattle, where my dad was an engineer. He loved rivers. He was always telling us about great construction projects. One I remember particularly was the Grand Coulee Dam. He worked for the state department of fish and game, and we used to drive all over the state looking at his fish ladders. I grew up thinking in terms of how many gallons it took to make a kilowatt, and about those fish ladders, so I've been really shocked to learn that they don't work. Oh, Dad, if you only knew! It just proves that we have to be more holistic in our thinking.
[[ picture: Berta, her PVs and house ]]
I was ten or twelve and very excited when I finally got to Grand Coulee. When I got there, I was so disappointed! The technology was so brutal and archaic. All that cement! Huge machines! I remember thinking, there's got to be a better, gentler way to get electricity out of a river. I imagined some sort of cable that could be laid down the river so the crawdads and gravel could live right beside it, if we only had something sensitive enough to pick up the flow. I saw it as a problem then, and I still do, that engineers want to solve problems with bigger, bigger, bigger versions of the same old, same old.
During the late 1970s, when computer chips started coming into common use, I figured we'd have less gross machines, and we could finally graduate to less electricity. I didn't think of this as a soft path, just something logical and inevitable. Early on, during the Carter era, when everyone was talking about the possibilities offered by the sun, I was very interested in solar stuff and PVs. Making electricity directly from sunlight seemed really cool, so it was too bad that only NASA could mesh on that. When Carter left, I went to sleep like everyone else, I guess. There were a few years there when I just stopped thinking and kind of gave up.
I've lived in Connecticut for 25 years, and moved to Norwich in 1984, three doors down the street from here. I liked the neighborhood; you'd never know it, but we're three blocks from town, right over the hill, so you can walk to the Post Office and the bank. I hate having to drive everywhere. I knew the little old man who lived here, and something of the house's history.
It's a small house, about 1,100 square feet, built in the 1840s by a millworker who took a great deal of pride in his workmanship. The sills and underneath structure are quite heavy and in good shape. He used traditional windows with recycled glass or seconds, so they were wavy. He was building as cheaply as possible, doing his best to save money. I like that.
The last family to live here were the McCarthys. Mary McCarthy raised seven children, planted that big Norway maple, and had a big garden out back. I'm the seventh myself, and this is just like the little house I was raised in. The house's biggest defect is its perilously steep stairs, but I can handle that: I fall down, I get up again; I don't care.
One day a "for sale" sign suddenly appeared on the place, and I thought, this is my chance to own in this neighborhood. Couple, three days later, the sign was gone: My landlord got it. Fortunately we were friends, so he let me look at it, and I watched him work it over, doing stuff I could never do. He took out the horsehair felting in the walls, replaced the spool-and-spindle wiring. He ripped out all the inside walls and threw the plaster down the well, which made me mad . . . but now it's all gone! I could see he wasn't doing the best job, but was just looking for the fast turnover. This was just before the real estate boom of the late 1980s. He bought it for thirty-six, sold it to me for sixty-five, and one year later I was offered ninety. Now it's probably back to sixty-five, even with the improvements. I didn't mind paying for his work.
I chose this house for a lot of reasons, but as I said, my main issue all my life has been electricity, and it seemed to me this small house would be perfect. Right after buying it, we took a hot-air balloon ride over it, and we could barely see the house in amongst the trees: That was cool!
About the time I bought the house, I did a self-realization course and realized that I like being Ms. Solar, and set about finding out what was new with that industry. I was driving a school bus, so I had plenty of time to call up everybody in the phonebook with "solar" in their name. Everyone referred me to someone else, so pretty quick I had quite a list of local sources. It must have been about 1988 or 1989 that I found a Real Goods Sourcebook at the Yale Coop, and I grabbed it. I still have it, too! Wow! all this stuff available to regular people. Of course this was twenty years later, but that's really a big change in such a short time. I could understand that PV would let you do your own electricity, but not too much. The real question was, would it take lots of tinkering? I didn't care. At the time, I was teaching gardening on the side, and had invented my pyramid greenhouse, so I was in touch with what the sun could do. I was thrilled to get back into electricity.
I had a big garden, and was doing a lot of canning, and so I got this ancient beast of a second hand refrigerator, El Monstero, we called it: noisy but I needed the big freezer. Suddenly my electric bill was through the roof. I knew it couldn't be just the fridge. I read Joel Davidson's book, The Solar Electric Home, where he said to audit all your electrical uses. I was thinking that solar was perfect, because we hardly used electricity anyway . . . was I surprised! I thought we had single 40-watt bulbs, but we were burning double 60s, things like that. When I compared the audit with the electric bill, it came out pretty much right. They really have you by the nostrils! 300 kilowatt-hours a month, how are we using all that electricity?
I'd already heard about Carol Levin and Richard Gottlieb, but I saw an ad for one of their classes, and signed up for a one-day class. It was early spring I remember, May or June, a blustery day. We spent all morning doing theory stuff, and that was all right, but we didn't get things wired up until ...well, first we set up under a tree, then there was a little shower, then pretty soon the sun was setting -- such a comedy! -- but we still made enough electricity to light a couple of compact fluorescent bulbs. ...well, maybe one and a half, but I was so impressed! Out of a class of seven or eight, I was the only one that was really excited; I was sold! I wanted some.
See, I was afraid PVs would be fragile, with all that glass, and too expensive, but at Richard's workshop we were slinging modules around, turning them upside down. They're not fragile. I'm also sold on them because they don't make noise, and they're not dangerous. PVs are the most benign source of electricity I know about.
I got into this because I wanted to know, can a person who's used to having electricity and who lives on a street in a city . . . could a person like me put in some PVs and a few batteries, and really live without being a burden to the earth? Or would it be a constant hassle? See, people don't have to mess with their electricity now, they just take it for granted. It seemed to me that was an experiment worth five thousand dollars. Hopefully, it would fit in as seamlessly as the old way.
But the first thing I had to do was get my electrical consumption under control. I changed all the lightbulbs. A neighboring utility was doing a deal on compact fluorescents for $4 each instead of $20, but Norwich is a public-power town, so the utility sent my order back saying "nope, talk to your own power company." I got my friends out of town to send the order in for me, and when I got the bulbs, I put them everywhere. Luckily, they all fit. I liked using less power, but in the summer, less heat, too! I love that.