In a trial run for hurricane season, South Miami’s solar-powered mayor went off the grid for seven days
Hurricane season is coming and Philip Stoddard is ready.
He is ready for any semi-apocalyptic event that cuts off electricity to his house because it can be run by the sun, and there’s plenty of sun in the Sunshine State.
Stoddard, a champion of solar energy and green living, took his family on a trial run in preparation for the next Irma or Andrew. They went off the grid for seven days. Could their solar- and battery-powered South Miami house pass the sustainability test?
“I wanted to see how the system would function during a prolonged power outage,” he said. “And I wanted to show a skeptical world that the technology works.”
Stoddard, mayor of South Miami, was pleased with the results of his experiment. The most suspenseful day was Day 4, on which Stoddard, his wife and three kids home for spring break decided to do laundry, including a large pile of towels from the kids’ repeated visits to the beach.
“The clothes dryer is a real energy hog, almost as hungry as our electric car,” said Stoddard, who owns a hybrid Toyota Prius and an all-electric Nissan Leaf, which he typically charges for 45 minutes each night at 1 a.m. “The constraints after a hurricane would be not doing our laundry on one day and driving the Prius instead of the Leaf.”
On a Saturday morning last month, Stoddard lifted his index finger with a dramatic flourish. It was time to disconnect. He turned off the main power switch located in a panel on the side of his house. He noticed a brief flicker of the lights but nothing stopped humming. For the next seven days, he and his family were able to operate the central air-conditioning unit during an unseasonably hot March week, all appliances, computers, lights, TV, solar water heater with an electric on-demand booster, and backyard pond pump, and charge the car without once running out of juice. Their 1953 Chambers stove runs on propane.
“We didn’t do anything differently, except I kept monitoring the power situation just a little obsessively at the start,” he said.
At the Stoddard household, the average Florida Power & Light bill is $9.56 per month. His solar system includes 30 west-facing panels that generate 7.5 kilowatts of power on the roof of his 1,600-square-foot house and two solar-charged Tesla Powerwall batteries in his garage that together provide 27 kilowatt hours of use capacity and 10 kilowatts of continuous output.
Stoddard started Day 4 with a 56 percent charge on the Tesla batteries. Then came five loads of laundry. The dryer draws 6 kilowatts per hour and the washer draws about 0.6 kilowatts per hour.
“From time to time, I peeked nervously at the energy flow,” Stoddard wrote on his daily blog, which includes hourly graphs of the solar and battery budget. “At 11 a.m., the battery was down to 36 percent, even as the sun rose higher in the sky. Then at 12:20 p.m., it happened — clouds rolled in. I’d feared this.”
Normally, when connected to the grid, a cloudy laundry day means Stoddard simply borrows a little power from the surplus he builds from a net-metering agreement with FPL that allows customers to push the excess power they produce onto the grid for nearby homeowners to use and then draw from the grid on their accrual when they need it, “kind of like a credit card,” he said. But if he’s off-grid and runs out of power, “I can’t run next door and ask the neighbors for a cup of electrons.”
“Could the house make it through a cloudy day running the freakin’ dryer nonstop? If I were a nail-biter, I would have bitten my nails. I was steeling myself for the ridicule I’d get if the power ran out because I’d been too ambitious,” Stoddard wrote. “The next morning I woke up (on fresh sheets), groped in the dark for my phone and saw the battery reserve was down to 13 percent.
“I briefly operated the toaster and microwave for breakfast. Nobody else was rattling around the house using a hair-dryer or an arc-welder. At 8 a.m., dawn’s rosy fingers tickled the solar panels and the batteries began to recharge.”
By midafternoon, they were fully replenished.
“It was a squeaker, but the solar house had made it through the biggest challenge of the week,” Stoddard said. The family cruised through the final three days with no crises.
Stoddard wants to retest his system during the rainy season when there are more cloudy days and the AC, which draws 2.6 to 3.1 kilowatts, runs more often.
Stoddard’s system, solar array and Tesla Powerwall batteries combined, with installation, cost about $23,000 after a 30 percent federal tax credit. The two batteries cost $11,650 after the credit, about half the total cost.
“It typically takes seven or eight years to pay off a system and get free electricity,” Stoddard said. “Depending on how much of your electric bill you want to cover, you figure you get about a 14 percent return on your capital investment — and if I could get that same rate of return on my retirement account, I’d put it all in solar. You can’t count on the stock market but you can count on the sun.”
Stoddard said the Powerwall home batteries are not essential. But they provide a more complete system and are more economical in the long run than a whole-house generator.
“We didn’t have those batteries during the week we had no power after Irma and were still able to run the refrigerator five hours per day and keep beer and Klondike bars cold, charge phones, make coffee,” and they could have run a window AC unit while they were sweating at night and kept awake by noisy, noxious generators if they had used their little Honda 2000i generator, he said. “Batteries help make up the difference if you want your house fully functional.
“If I lived in the countryside, I’d have three batteries and say goodbye to FPL entirely.”
Remorse is the emotion Stoddard felt when he flipped the power back on after a week without it.
“We felt very self-sufficient,” said Stoddard, who has battled FPL policies as mayor. “We enjoyed a week of energy independence from our local investor-owned utility, the same utility that has tried for years to run massive power lines through the middle of South Miami.”
Stoddard, a professor of biological sciences at FIU, helped South Miami make history in 2017 when the city became the first in the U.S. outside of California to pass a law requiring anyone building a new house — or in some cases adding on to existing ones — to install solar panels.
“More than 30 families in South Miami have already taken the free money by installing solar power,” Stoddard said. “The 30 percent refund deal is good for solar systems purchased through the end of 2019, then it’s 26 percent through 2021, then 22 percent through 2022, then zero.
“Anyone owning a sunny roof who hasn’t taken advantage of this tax credit is leaving money on the table. Why would you do that when your neighbors are enjoying hefty refunds and cheap renewable power?”
Stoddard is on a mission to convert more people to a clean-energy, solar lifestyle. His blog is full of how-to tips, data and money-saving recommendations, including information on Solar United Neighbors co-op, which is free to join online through April 27.
“Solar provides the one opportunity for the average American homeowner to make money while saving the planet,” Stoddard said while sitting in his backyard, which looks like a nature preserve. He planted cypress trees and dug a 42-foot-long pond, now home to sunfish, koi, mosquito fish, a largemouth bass named Ackwards, frogs and toads. Butterflies flit through the air. Herons and ospreys like to visit.
“Electricity generates a huge carbon footprint. We have to put a lid on carbon,” he said. “Electricity production accounts for 28.5 percent of America’s greenhouse gas production. Transportation accounts for another 28 percent. With solar-powered buildings and electric vehicles, we could reduce our climate-killing air pollution by 56 percent.
Stoddard has been a lifelong guardian of the environment. He believes the ramifications of global climate change and sea rise will be acute in South Florida. With Earth Day, April 22, just around the corner, followed by six months of tropical storms and hurricanes, flooding and more record heat, procrastinators can’t continue to say the planet’s health — and that of its occupants — is a problem for future generations to solve.
“I grew up walking in the woods in Maryland, and I liked snakes and birds. My first job was studying the effects of disturbance ecology — forest fires, logging and strip-mining — for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” he said. “I remember when Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House lawn — and when Ronald Reagan took them off. Let’s stop repeating our mistakes. We’re smarter now, aren’t we?”