Rebekah Carpenter brings her long-standing expertise to work for her company, Fingerlakes Renewables Solar Energy, in New York City.
Photo by Aur Beck
The opportunity to install solar electric systems presented itself to off-grid energy pioneer Rebekah Carpenter in the form of an offer to travel to Mali in West Africa. She would be responsible for installing an off-grid system – if she could learn the trade first. Twenty years later, solar has become a part of who she is, who is the founder of Fingerlakes Renewables in Ithaca, NY, where she has built longevity in a once volatile industry, overcoming inflation, early and removing subsidies, technology wins losses and increases in utility prices. MOTHER EARTH NEWS blogger Aur Beck recently spent some time chatting with Rebekah. The interview is edited for clarity.
Living off the grid, none of my daily needs require the electrical, gas or oil infrastructure to operate. For me, living off the grid isn’t a heroic statement about self-sufficiency – everything I’ve built has been on the shoulders of giants before me – but it’s a matter of function: if disaster does occur, I could continue my fairly fluid lifestyle with little upheaval or change.
It’s my return to a more intentional relationship with everyday function. Investing time and money in an infrastructure that does not require the continuous work of anyone else to maintain creates a sort of island; the number of people and households involved in off-grid lifestyles may vary, but there is a greater aspect of inner communication rather than outer involvement in this circle.
This intentionality means living on a budget based on intangible resources – like the total number of hours of sunshine per day – rather than representative resources, like cash sent to the utility. In a grid frame there is an illusion, if not a reality, of infinite availability throughout the day. The cost calculation comes after consumption. Off-grid, there is a finite resource that can be expanded if the cost calculation precedes consumption and therefore is more of an investment than a payment.
Was this kind of intentional off-grid lifestyle part of your upbringing? Tell us a bit about how this journey started.
I grew up in Texas. My family moved to Ithaca when I was 14 and I left for Dallas a few months later. I have brothers: three older and one 20 years younger than me. I collect animals. I really enjoy working. My 8th grade aptitude test told me I could do whatever I wanted and that I shouldn’t be a tradesperson because my life would be wasted. Good… [laughs]
I went to school a bit in western Washington, then in northern Idaho, and then returned rather aimlessly to Ithaca when I was 23. I dropped out of two colleges trying to study wildlife and game management. I was not happy to have more college, I was not happy with the cold and was quite lost in general.
When my family moved to Ithaca when I was 14, I lived in the house we were building long enough to be responsible for the wiring before I left, so when I was offered the opportunity to start learning about it more on solar power, sit at home fairs and workshops, and do a little bit of wiring, i didn’t really jump but meander in that direction.
Then all of a sudden I had the opportunity to get a free trip to Bamako, Mali, if I learned enough the trade to install an off-grid system there.
During the two years it took to get to Bamako – costs, education, shipping delays, 9/11 delays – I had started working in a local intentional community that my father managed as a solar specialist. I am a carpenter by birth, but an electrician by trade, I like to say! (I also like to say that I’m Rebekah Carpenter, do not a finishing carpenter, so don’t expect every corner to be square). It was all connected to the grid, mostly using nominal 48-volt DC systems tied to spinning meters that were simply allowed to be connected to the grid. And wiring in J-boxes on 110-watt mods, as there were no quick connections, and aluminum drills, as extruded racks were not yet standard.
I was starting to make site visits elsewhere, showing up for small off-grid systems, hoping I didn’t make big mistakes.
I hope you have finally arrived in Mali.
Yes! After this roundabout path, direction Mali!
I spent 13 days settling in the remote suburbs of the capital – at the time, I was quite addicted. When I got back to New York, NYSERDA [New York State Energy Research and Development Authority] took over the previous subsidy plan and started training us as installers in their factory in Malta. It was around 2002. In the years that followed, I tried to escape from time to time but …
What are the main barriers for people going solar in the United States today?
More often than not, the reason people don’t choose solar power is the cost. Many people only want solar power if they can secure their power supply with a battery. [for complete self-reliance], and this is still an unattainable goal for many.
Lack of location is also a big factor for people – although many of them can now choose solar parks, community solar, or purchasing electricity from wind farms. When I started working in this field the subsidies were much higher, but the cost of the materials was a lot higher. The transfer of funding from the subsidy to the tax credit has helped income earners immensely, but has largely wiped out a sector of consumers who would very much like to invest in renewables but are not in a bracket where they can benefit from the tax. credits.
As availability increases and costs decrease, this is still a positive cash investment that many people cannot afford. And in pricing systems, the economy of scale certainly does not support the start-small approach.
Another factor preventing people from going solar is educational or political misinformation.
Tell me about your worst jobs.
In the off-grid world, people can have unrealistic wants and needs, and they blame me. Being told to design a small system or modest use isn’t always right for the kind of people who jostle! I will find out that they installed a 40 gallon dual element water heater between design signatures and installation time – make sure to ask more questions now!
Worst network job involved a homeowner who hadn’t finished installing the roof, had multiple village cleaning tickets, was looked down upon by the code officer and code enforcement – and we didn’t get along not. I had to unplug this system when the owner didn’t show up to court to pay the fines, the code enforcement was resentful, and I chose to lose money and get some sleep.
I would say the worst situations are due to poor communication between the owners and me. One of the downsides of being on my own as a business owner is that I don’t have anyone to send to mend my aching ego!
It seems that the human factor, rather than the technical factors, is the biggest source of problems.
Well, for a house, the inverters kept tripping. It was using a certain GT model which had terrible issues. We have turned off three inverters, twice. This owner was as patient as possible, although it was frustrating for both of us.
How about your best jobs?
The best jobs, man it’s tough. The first commercial site I set up was a winery, so the view looked out over the lake, vineyards and hills. Hard to beat that. And I built a little overhang for the four SMAs [brand] inverters (in the era of transformers). However, I am 5 feet 3 inches tall and the average the height of the employees of the vineyard was about 6 feet. Two men were about 6 feet 4 inches tall. I built a nice little roof, easily accessible so that I could walk right under it. Lovely people!
I’ve had conversations with clients about life and loss, I’ve discussed abusive relationships, struggling to be a woman or a minority in the trades (or anywhere). A guy was going through a third wave of cancer and we talked about plants for a few hours.
I was rehired more often than expected to add more production. Another guy said he had no more buildings or that he would put me more! I rewired systems from 20 years ago with new inverters and they are working great. I can design small, inexpensive systems for the elderly who have lived on little or nothing, but now want a little more.
It is the joy of independent work; I don’t always have to earn money to make a job worth it! I taught the basics of electricity to immigrants, women, high schools and junior high school classes. I have done relief work in Puerto Rico and had the incredible opportunity to help with life changing work in Haiti. I guess I still really enjoy my job.
Get in touch with Rebekah Carpenter through her company, Renewable energies from Fingerlakes is in Ithaca NY
Aur Beck has been living completely off-grid for over 35 years. He traveled with his family through 24 states and recorded 14,000 miles in a horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The climate reality project, another drug addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find it on the Living off the grid, really!?!? Facebook page, and read all messages from Aur MOTHER EARTH NEWS here.
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Originally published: 07/17/2021 08:12:00