Is It Possible to Live Off the Electrical Grid?

In a word: Yes, but it's not easy or cheap.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    It's a good question! And yes, it is possible to save money by using the sun and wind to power homes and businesses.

    You see those big wind turbines dotting the prairie, churning out thousands of megawatts with their giant blades. And you wonder, "Could I do that?"

    The answer is, absolutely.

    "It's not an easy process, but its definitely worth the effort," said suburban restaurateur Brian Great.

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    For the last year, he's been generating power at his Great Escape restaurant in Schiller Park with a giant wind machine over 100 feet tall.

    "Any generation from the turbine comes right into the building," Great said, his giant windmill spinning outside the window. "If it's not generating enough, we're supplemented with ComEd. If we're generating too much, the excess goes out to the community grid."

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    The big blades start turning when the winds are blowing about eight miles per hour. They'll keep spinning at five, and even at those slow speeds, electricity is produced. Great says 15 miles per hour is optimum.

    "Fifteen to 20 miles an hour will give us 60 to 80 kilowatts, which is a very healthy amount."

    Great estimates his total investment at about $350,000 and hopes to see the system pay off in about 10 years. And while some wind advocates have been met with opposition in their communities, largely for aesthetic reasons, Great said his wind machine has been met largely with open arms.

    "Any opposition that was voiced said, 'If it's such a great idea, how come everybody isn't doing it?' Well, somebody's got to start!"

    "I wasn't starry eyed," Great said. "I didn't want to put this thing up and have it be a problem for me. I wanted to make sure it was appropriate for the area and friendly and did what it was supposed to do."

    At Abt Electronics in suburban Glenview, the store owners have taken a slightly different approach. Abt does have solar panels and wind turbines on their sprawling 350,000 square foot building. But the lion's share of the company's electricity is generated with natural gas.

    "We have two locomotive engines, that work on natural gas," said Abt's Bob Taylor. "It produces all of the power for Abt from 9 in the morning until 6."

    The $2 million Abt system paid for itself in roughly four and a half years.

    The store is filled with scores of giant high definition TVs, as well as washers, dryers, refrigerators and ranges. Taylor said those appliances are so efficient, however, that the biggest electrical load comes exactly where it is found in the average home: heating and air conditioning. But his high-tech electrical generation system generates so much power that Abt actually sends electricity back into the grid.

    "If you were producing more power than you were using, your meter would actually spin backwards," Taylor said.

    Meter spinning backwards? Aileen Eilert and her husband said they see it all the time. They installed a wind turbine and solar panels at their home in west suburban Lisle, and say they routinely send power back to Com Ed.

    "You know," it's nice to see it every day," she said, pointing to the white turbine spinning in her back yard. "It's a reminder that we're creating energy."

    The Eilerts estimate they invested about $22,000 in their wind and solar systems. Roughly 60 percent, was paid for with state and federal rebates.

    "I just wanted to show people this is possible," Eilert said. "This is something people can do, and it's not just, you know, big companies putting up turbines in the middle of farmland."

    Brian Great agreed that money was not the motivating factor. "It's to show it could be done. That everybody can do something."