OFF THE GRID: Vidalia man uses solar, wind to depend less on power company
When the Mississippi River began flooding his house nearly two years ago, Lonnie Barnett embarked on a power struggle that has consumed him ever since.
The lights were out in his Minorca Road house, and Barnett vowed to be sure that never happened again.
“They had cut our power when the river started to rise, and the whole time I was thinking, ‘If I had power I’d probably stay,’” Barnett said. “That flood changed everything for me.”
Barnett’s house, like many on Minorca Road and on that side of the levee, is propped up on stilts to protect against the unpredictable river.
But the water still found its way in when the river rose and crested at 61.9 feet on the Natchez gauge in May 2011.
Words such as “unpredictable” and “rare” weren’t enough to convince Barnett not to make changes when he was finally able to return home.
“So much stuff in the house just had to be thrown out or stripped and redone,” Barnett said. “Not my stove though. I found that thing floating upside down in my house, but I let it dry out, and it’s the one I still use today.”
After the initial cleanup phase was complete, Barnett’s next course of action was to extend the length of the stilts that held up his house — giving him some extra room if the water were to reach that same historic level again.
A former welder and all around handyman, the job came somewhat simply and enjoyable to Barnett.
But the question of what to do with his electricity woes kept coming back to him.
“After that flood, I decided that if the river rose again I would just stay put,” Barnett said. “So I wanted to find a way that I could keep all my stuff running if that happened.”
Apart from a generator that he already owned and used on occasion, Barnett started looking into alternative energy solutions such as solar and wind power.
His question was simple: Can I run my whole house by harnessing the power of the sun?
The answer was complicated but also one that intrigued him.
“I found this company in Monroe that specialized in solar energy, so they came out, and I told them I wanted them to setup everything so I could run my whole house off solar,” Barnett said. “I had come into some money at the time, and I figured it would be a good investment and save me money in the long run if I didn’t have to pay an electricity bill.”
The company, however, gave Barnett a quote of $20,000 for all the work — a significant amount higher than what he was willing to pay.
“I told them this is what I can pay, can you make it happen for that amount?” he said. “At first they said they could do it easily, but then they kept trying to throw in all this extra stuff and it ended being too expensive.”
But that first step was all it took to get his mind racing about doing the work himself and saving even more money.
After researching the various components needed for his solar power project, Barnett ordered two 110-watt solar panels and a power hub system.
The power hub allows the power generated from the panels to be used either as a standard electrical outlet or to charge dry cell batteries that can be removed and used separately.
After installing the solar panels on his roof and the power hub inside, Barnett decided to first test the solar power’s potential by using it to run his fishing house, which sits in the river a few hundred feet from his house.
With a little bit of handy electrical work, Barnett was able to reroute the power line coming from his fishing house directly into the power hub system.
Inside the fishing house running off the solar power panels was a refrigerator, a heater, a fan and all the lights Barnett uses when catching his favorite fish, white perch.
“That’s like my second house out there,” he said. “I had the power running out there for a long time, and it worked so good I figured I’d see what it could handle in the house.”
Barnett switched over the power from his fishing house to his main house and began by powering the lights to a small storage room.
By that point Barnett wanted to power more things using the solar energy.
That required more money to purchase more panels.
Luckily for Barnett, Christmas was right around the corner and Santa himself couldn’t have given him a better gift than what his son, Clint, gave him.
“We had gotten into a little argument, so we hadn’t been talking for a while,” Lonnie said. “But then one day we got to talking again, and I started telling him about the panels.”
Unknowingly to Lonnie, Clint had also started experimenting with solar panels at his house across town in Vidalia.
But Clint had taken the less expensive route and built six solar panels himself using individual solar cells, soldering tape, scrap wood as the frame and tempered Plexiglass to protect the cells.
“I’ve always been interested in forms of alternative energy, so I started looking into solar, and it really didn’t seem that hard of a thing to do,” Clint said. “I love working and making things, but the other part of it was that the electric bill can get a little high sometimes.”
But just as he was finishing building the panels, Clint said his free time began dwindling as his school work from Central Louisiana Technical Community College started taking up the majority of his time.
“I just didn’t really have the time or money to keep investing in the project, so when I heard my dad had his panels I thought it would be perfect to give to him,” Clint said. “He was pretty excited to get those up and running and to start building some of his own.”
Those six homemade 45-watt panels didn’t sit around gathering dust for long, Lonnie said, as he installed them on his roof shortly after — giving him a total of eight panels on his Minorca Road house.
The extra solar panels allowed Lonnie to power his workroom next to his storage room and keep a charge on all the external batteries he uses for his power tools.
But the bug was still biting away at Lonnie and the next relief didn’t come in the form of solar panels, but windmills instead.
“Everyone says you need to go green and do all this different stuff,” Lonnie said. “Well, if I’m going green I’m going green all the way.”
Lonnie bought two small windmills and a wind-generator controller to attach to his power hub that allowed him to convert the wind energy into usable electricity through the hub.
The windmills, Lonnie said, begin to turn and generate energy when the wind is blowing at 4 mph.
Apart from continuing on his path to getting completely off the electrical grid, Lonnie said the windmills allow him to have some form of alternative energy source at all times.
“If its rainy and windy for a few days, the windmills will do the trick,” Lonnie said. “But during the summer months when it’s sunny and not very windy, the solar panels will get the job done.”
The energy generated from both the solar panels and windmills is stored in the power hub — or dry cell batteries if connected — to use at a later time.
The extra boost from the windmills, on top of the eight solar panels, allowed Lonnie to start powering his fishing house again as well as the two rooms in his house.
And now with a supply room full of solar cells, Lonnie said he’s looking forward to building his own solar panels to continue the project to power even more things in his house using solar and wind energy.
“I’ll probably still have electricity running to my house from the power company for a while, but maybe one day I won’t need it anymore,” Lonnie said. “The goal is to have my entire roof covered with solar panels and about 10 or 15 windmills going to run my whole house.
“Then I’ll be completely off the grid.”
The project, Clint said, is one he supports his dad on 100 percent and wishes he could be a bigger help.
“My wife and I are getting ready to move after we graduate, so I can’t help him as much as I wanted to,” Clint said. “I had every intention of going over there and helping him build all those panels, but that got put on hold with school and the move.
“I think we’d make a good team though.”
And even though he won’t have his son by his side, Lonnie said he will continue moving ahead with the project with his ultimate goal always in the back of his mind.
“I’m doing all this, so I can stay here no matter what happens,” Lonnie said. “I love it here.”