Off the grid and loving it: Retirees rely on renewable energy for Wolf Creek-area dream home
Up a winding road and miles back into the rolling hill country outside Wolf Creek, one just might discover the dream home of Kevin and Sharon Moore.
Modest, compact and unplugged — it’s just what the Moores envisioned for their retirement.
They’re delighted to watch the elk and deer that graze on their 52 acres and the blue birds flitting by.
And they’re particularly loving being off the grid.
Working with Jackson Isbell of Solar Montana in Helena, they installed a solar energy and propane generator system for all their electrical and heat needs.
They get their electricity from nine 250-watt solar panels and their heat from a propane stove heater.
“If we run out of power, this is a propane generator,” said Kevin, pointing to a metal rectangular box tucked behind their home. “It will automatically kick in.”
And should the propane tank somehow hit empty in a blizzard, they have a second backup — a gasoline generator.
So far, they filled the tank in August and again around late January.
“Any time you have solar, you need to have a backup system,” Kevin said. “But it’s surprising the amount of sun you can get this far north.”
In their garage, a bank of 16 6-volt batteries stores the solar energy. They can store up to 3 1/2 days of electric power, should there be several days of cloud cover or heavy snow. Above the batteries is a white metal box, the solar inverter, which converts the direct current (DC) from the batteries into alternating current (AC) that feeds into their electrical network.
When it’s cloudy, they conserve energy by not running the vacuum cleaner or the washing machine.
“We’ve become sun worshippers,” joked Kevin.
They’re not the only ones. A number of their neighbors are also off the grid.
A few folks, however, hooked up to the power line that runs underground along their road.
“We had the option,” said Sharon, “but we like the sustainable, renewable energy idea.”
In fact, it was part of their dream home vision from the get-go.
“I was always intrigued by the solar power idea — the power of the sun,” Kevin said.
Knowing they wanted to install solar panels, they took five years to shop for just the right land in Montana with lots of southern exposure.
They made energy-conserving choices. Their home uses one gas stove in the living room to heat the house, rather than a forced air system. And there’s no air conditioning.
They also purchased energy efficient appliances.
Before they had their house built, they gave off-the-grid living a trial run. They stayed in a trailer on the property for vacations and used small solar panels to run their electricity. Satisfied, they were ready to take the next step.
Their thoughtfulness and investment are paying off.
“Everything — including the propane generator — cost $19,000,” Kevin said of the solar energy system. “It probably would have cost $30,000 to run power into the property.”
There were also state and federal tax incentives, said Sharon.
It was a $1,000 per household state tax credit, said Kevin, and a 30 percent federal tax credit for the total system cost.
In case others are thinking of installing a solar system, the federal tax credit is set to expire in 2016, he said.
Kevin estimates they are saving $150 to $200 per month on utilities, based on their previous typical bills in Utah.
According to Kevin, he’s not particularly mechanical. But he has been able to do the energy monitoring and make any minor adjustments needed. Four times a year, he will adjust the solar panels to maximize the amount of solar energy they capture.
If there’s a problem, Isbell is only a phone call away to give advice or come fix it.
Since they moved in last June, it’s been problem-free.
Kevin knows in five to seven years, the 16 batteries will have to be replaced at an approximate cost of $350 each.
He advises making sure to buy reliable equipment and to check into the installer’s references.
“We wanted to live in Montana. It was a dream,” said Kevin of what brought them here. “Sharon grew up a military brat. I spent 24 years in the Air Force.”
After living in numerous places in the United States and four years in Holland, they were ready to put down roots after retirement.
For years, whenever they had vacations, they headed to the mountains.
Now the mountains are within view from their doorstep.
“It’s peaceful,” said Sharon, who is a retired school teacher.
Kevin’s already built a few raised beds for gardening and plans to start on a root cellar — an old-fashioned and energy efficient way to store the harvest for fall and winter.
Someday, they plan to build a larger house on a nearby hill, but for now they’re quite content in their 820-square-foot living space with attached garage.
And they’re happy with their decision.
“We just love it. We haven’t had anything that made us think we made the wrong decision,” said Sharon.
“A lot has happened in the past decade,” said Solar Montana owner Isbell. He likens the rising popularity of solar energy to the computer revolution.
“I’m seeing an increase in demands for estimates and installations,” he said. “The price has decreased dramatically — as much as 60 percent the last five years.
“Solar panels are much more efficient. … And the quality is a lot more standardized. They now come with a 25-year warranty. When I look for a panel, I look for a company with a good reputation.” Inverters have also come a long way.
“In Montana it’s pretty tough to be totally off-grid,” he said. “You’re always designing for the worst month.” With that in mind, he designs in a backup propane system for those living out of town and off the grid.
He doesn’t recommend solar for everyone.
Location, utility costs and willingness to adapt one’s lifestyle are all factors.
If you’re considering the investment, Isbell suggests doing your homework. And he advises working with an installer that has certification from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners.
“We have a contract we write,” he said, “to give peace of mind for us and the customers. What’s very important is we never say it will cost more than what we say in the contract.”