Silent Nights

How solar helped one family maintain peace amid disaster.

Willard Macdonald is no stranger to solar tech or clean energy. With a background in engineering and a personal drive to do his part to help the planet, he’s learned his fair share about the available clean-energy solutions.

“As an engineer, I felt like I really wanted to spend my working hours trying to solve climate change rather than other interesting, but perhaps less important, problems to the world,” he explains as he settles into a living room sofa in his Northern Californian home, seemingly considering the path that led him to make solar such a major part of his life.

“When I was at Berkeley, I saw a presentation. The professor showed a slide of a world map. On each continent, he marked a 100 x 100-mile square. He said that if we put solar panels on each of those squares, it would generate enough energy to run the planet. And that blew my mind. I realized we can really do this with solar.”

Willard has been an active contributor to the world of residential solar ever since he started his own solar energy company in 2005. As a California resident, he experiences a lot of the problems that come from traditional power, not the least of which is the cost of energy. But a different issue has been of particular concern lately, as well as a popular topic on the news: wildfires.

“A few weeks back there was a fire in Northern California called the Kincaid fire. There were also some high winds expected in the coming days, so they announced they would be having planned outages in the grid, potentially for days.”

Outages aren’t unfamiliar to many California residents. High winds can knock over powerlines, which, with the generally dry climate, poses a serious fire hazard. As a solution, utility companies might shut down sections of the grid until any possible danger passes, potentially preventing the start of other fires that would be both costly and dangerous. These outages can last anywhere from a few hours to several days.

Luckily, the Macdonalds made sure to include a solar energy system and solar power battery when they built their home. They took the opportunity in the building phase to prioritize what devices would draw power from the battery. This included the refrigerator, internet router, well and water system, all the ceiling lights, and a few select outlets in the house. And the preparation paid off.

“We didn’t know exactly when the grid went down. We were sitting at the table, having dinner as a family, and the lights went off for about a second, then came back on. We were able to finish our dinner and the kids didn’t even hardly notice.”

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As he got ready for bed that night, the evacuation warning he had received earlier was fresh on his mind. He knew he might be asked to take his family to safety at any moment. But for the time being, everything was comfortable and running nearly the same as usual. They went to sleep that night with the comfort of renewable power. Then the evacuation warning became more than just a warning.

“We got a notification that we had to evacuate. It was early in the morning so it was still dark, but we were able to turn on our lights, start the coffee maker, and run the water. My son even did a last-minute download of an audiobook for the drive.”

They made their way to Willard’s parents’ home over fifty miles away. Getting out of the area helped them escape the danger, but not the power outage. As he entered his parent’s home, Willard was greeted by darkened lights and a leaking fridge.

“They hadn’t had power for about thirteen hours. My Dad had been waiting for me to get there to help them because we had to move the fridge so we could reach behind, unplug it, and replug it into an extension cord that we ran outside to my father’s gas generator.”

After running several long extension cords and with some effort to maneuver their appliances so they would be within reach, they were able to get power to a few key appliances—most importantly the freezer.

“One of my Dad’s hobbies is salmon fishing, so the freezer was full of salmon,” Willard recalls with a smile.

But there was more than the cost of fuel that the Macdonalds had to worry about when it came to using a generator. The first thing Willard remembers is the amount of noise the generator made, followed soon by the smell. And this wasn’t the first time during the outrage he’d dealt with them.

“Before being evacuated, I went into my backyard and noticed the roaring of my three neighbors’ generators. I was grateful for my quiet power source and wished they had one too because, despite the fires, the sky was full of stars.”

Willard and his family ended up staying with his parents for four nights and, although the generator was a solution, it was one that came at a daily cost, mostly to their comfort.

“After those first few hours of relief, when we were finally powering the refrigerator so that everything wouldn’t melt, it started to become a nuisance. The noise, in particular, and the exhaust smell. It got old pretty fast.”

Beyond the noise and smell, they were also forced to quickly fall into a carefully calculated routine of starting up and shutting off their generator in order to provide enough power to keep everything working properly. But it required planning and sticking to a careful routine.

Curious about his own energy production at home, Willard decided to log into his home energy system to find out how it had been fairing while they were gone. He found that his battery had charged back up to 100% each morning, stayed there throughout the day while running his refrigerator and irrigation system, as well his various other appliances and devices. The battery never depleted beyond 65% over the course of the entire four days they were gone.

“It felt kind of like a miracle. I’ve been in the solar industry for more than 10 years and it still feels like a miracle. The sun comes up and there’s just energy there. And you can run your house on it and charge your battery. It’s silent and it doesn’t smell. Those were two things I really started to appreciate during this time.”

After the grid turned back on, Willard and his family were able to safely return home. When they got there, the lawn was watered (which helped protect it against possible embers floating onto the grass) and everything in the fridge was still cold.

“The need for backup power is increasing and I firmly believe that the way to do it is with solar. It’s quiet, it doesn’t pollute, and it’s renewable. It just comes back every day. It’s amazing.”

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