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Meeting generates interest

Advocates say alternative energy can save planet, cushion wallet

March 18, 2009
A packed house at a meeting last week at the Blue River Café in Milltown signaled an increased interest in alternative energy sources locally and lifted the curtain on a subject that many feel has been on the back burner too long.

The meeting, sponsored by Orange County Homegrown and the second in a series, addressed the danger of continued use of fossil fuels for power needs and how other options are available and are being used, if not on a large scale, at least by many homeowners, to unhook from the power grid and reduce not only utility costs but pollution and the nation's carbon footprint.

Representatives from the offices of Sen. Evan Bayh and Ninth District Congressman Baron Hill were on hand, as was State Sen. Richard Young, to listen to the presentation and gather ideas.

The meeting, titled "Renewable Energy Resources for Southern Indiana," focused on affordable and effective installations of alternative energy sources for homeowners and small businesses.

"Coal keeps the lights on in Indiana," said Andy Mahler, of Orange County Homegrown, who opened the program. "But every time you turn on a light switch, the top is being blown off a mountain in West Virginia or Kentucky. Or a huge area is being obliterated by a large dragline, removing the top soil to get to seams of coal.

"It has been said that this country has an unlimited supply of coal, but much of it is not commercially viable to mine. So, we're looking at 15 to 20 years and the coal will be gone. Then what? Indiana burns more coal than any other state, except for Texas. And Indiana also has the highest release of harmful gases per capita because of our dependence on coal," he continued.

"Coal has made many things possible for us, but we can now see the damage it causes. The scary projections of 10 years ago are now moderate projections. We are going through a period of profound changes and these are inspiring times. We have to look at what we can do for ourselves, not at what the government will do. And the proposed biomass plant at Milltown is called renewable energy, but you can't renew anything on that scale. Those things are forest-devouring machines."

Mahler went on to talk about how a friend of his in West Virginia used to go out his back door and look up at a beautiful mountain. Now, when he goes out his back door, he has to look down at what looks like a moonscape, devastated by the mining of coal.

Mahler then introduced Terry Kok, a designer and installer of innovative energy systems, with more than 20 years of experience in renewable energy systems. Kok is the principle design engineer and consultant for Starlight Ecotechnics.

Kok opened with information about the house he built (this is the second one) that operates completely independent of the electric grid.

"We have solar power, a small wind generator, and we recycle most of our water," Kok said. "We have no connection to the outside electric grid. But I'm a musician, and I use all kinds of electronics. We have a refrigerator, we have pressurized water, lighting; we have it all. But all the power we use comes from a 1.7-KW solar panel and a small 800-watt wind generator. We also have a battery bank that can store enough electricity for three days.

"This alternative energy thing is real. It's just equipment. The rest of the planet is ahead of the U.S. in alternative energy. I'm off the grid and operating just fine. But our society is afraid of alternative energy, so the energy companies control what power we have. They tell us, 'This is all you're going to have.' If there was a bigger demand for alternative energy sources, companies would promote the products in ads, on TV and other ways, and we'd buy them. We already know it works. This is the stuff that powers satellites."

Kok went on to talk about how small villages in Africa, miles and miles from nowhere, now have solar panels which give them refrigeration to preserve medicines, electricity to run water pumps and even power for computers and Internet service.

"It's all over the planet, except in the U.S.," Kok said. "We're changing the planet. We now have more severe storms. We have to adapt and prepare for survival. We're going into a period that is serious, not temporary. We don't need growth in the economy every year, just like we don't need a bigger garden every year."

Kok talked about World War II and how large groups of people made things happen.

"As a kid, I used to look at Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines," he added. "I saw the future in those magazines. They always gave me a vision of something else to build, something beneficial to the planet or mankind. I used to wonder what the world would look like if we did this or that. But look at the magazines for young people now. And all that kids know how to do now when they get out of school is work for a corporation.

"We need to teach them how to do things, and they need to know how to do them. We need apprentice programs; we need to train others to do what we've learned to do. But we're now a nation of consumers. China makes it, and we consume it. We can't make it anymore. I don't care if you're a Democrat or Republican. We need to work together and not be divided."

Kok also talked about forming community co-ops in order to buy equipment cheaper.

"You can buy a solar panel for about $4.65 to $4.85 per watt," Kok said. "If you buy a whole pallet of solar panels, you can buy them for about $3.39 per watt. Buying co-ops are important. If you buy as a community, things can be bought so much cheaper. Some of the lodges, like the Moose, Eagles and others were formed as buying co-ops. If people pool their money, so much more can be accomplished.

"Communities also need to form think tanks. They have them in Washington, and in the military, and they work. It puts together a lot of people who have a lot of different knowledge and brains and gets things done.

"If someone in the community can build alternators, or rebuild old ones, and someone else can weld and make frames, and someone else is a woodworker who can make propellers, the community can work together to build windmills. There are great wind micro-sites all around for windmills. These areas may not work for large commercial windmills, but are perfect for small, single-household ones.

"If you use a computer, use a laptop; they consume a lot less energy. We can go back to the old ammonia-type refrigeration that works great. We can use algae fuel and make it at home.

"We can use geo-thermal heating and cooling, which is a form of heat pump. We can use an earth tube to blow 55-degree air into our homes and eliminate electric air conditioning. LED lighting is just now coming into use and is extremely efficient. And this stuff is affordable. My little wind turbine cost about $450. Solar panels are getting more affordable every year. We just need to adapt, and we can."

Anyone wanting more information on alternative energy sources can contact Tony Phillips, who owns The Alternative Energy Source store in Milltown, at 633-4252.

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