PUBLISHED: 10:42 AM on Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Alternative energy returns power to the consumer
While most Juneau residents ponder the temporary high cost of diesel powered electricity a few families have found a way to avoid rising energy costs.

The Shaul family has been living off the grid for the past 10 years, making their own electricity using a water-driven Pelton wheel. They live in a modern 1500 square foot home, which looks like any other house but uses a minimal amount of electricity.

"The first thing we saw was the creek. We ended up buying two lots to get the creek," Leon Shaul said, describing the property he purchased in 1987.

The creek runs down hill and could be described as a gently flowing brook. Water is collected from the creek and filtered into an underground pipe. Gravity pushes the water downhill through about 300 feet of pipe and a 39-foot drop in elevation. The water emerges from four nozzles at 17 PSI in a small shed.

The pressurized water pushes a Pelton water wheel, which is attached to bus alternator that creates electricity. Shaul installed the system himself at a cost of about $7,000.

Pelton wheels are among the most efficient types of water turbines. It was invented by Lester Allan Pelton in the 1870s, and is an impulse machine that extracts energy from a jet of fluid.

"I didn't come naturally skilled. I did a lot of research," said Shaul. "I gathered a library of small hydro (information)."

Shaul said that installing the system required specialized knowledge beyond basic household wiring.

During his research, Shaul read about a government report that was a bible of information on alternative energy. The report was written by a government scientist during the Carter administration and oil crisis. With his A to Z guide on alternative home energy in hand, Shaul installed a hydropower system, which produces 24 volts of DC current.

"We have a battery bank of eight fork lift batteries," he said. "They hold about 18 Kilowatt hours (KWh) of storage."

A converter installed next to his washer and dryer changes DC current into standard household AC current.

According to AEL&P, the average Juneau home consumes 20 KWh of electric per day. In comparison, the Shual family home uses only 3 KWh per day, which would cost $55 dollars per month at the current rate of 55 cents per kilowatt hour.

However, their hydropower system creates 7.5 KWh per day, and the surplus electricity is dumped into an electric hot water heater. Shaul said that all of the electricity has to be used with a hydro-power system.

  Erik Stimpfle photo Juneau resident Leon Shaul uses a downhill creek in his backyard to generate hydroelectric power. The Pelton water wheel he installed produces 24 volts of DC current, which is then converted into an AC current to power his home.
The super-efficient home is possible because the Shaul family dumped into an electric hot water heater. Shaul said that all of the electricity has to be used with a hydro-power system.

installed the most efficient appliances they could find. They use a propane stove for cooking and their clothes dryer runs off propane and electricity. Their refrigerator uses 80 percent less electricity then a typical refrigerator.

The Shaul family installed switches throughout the house to cut down on "phantom loads" used by idle appliances and fixtures. The home is heated by wood, and an air exchanger circulates heat throughout the house. An antique wood fired cooking stove is used for some of the cooking. Hot water pipes have been welded along the length of the chimney, heating water for household use during cooking.

Shaul said it took about four months to get permitted and obtain water rights for his hydro electric power plant. He used the Alaska Coastal Zone process and recommended that people contact John Dunker at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to find out about the permitting process.

Greg Cheney, who is a planner with the city of Juneau, built a similar hydropower project thirteen years ago for a house he built on Shelter Island. Cheney estimated his system cost $5,000 to install.

"It was a big challenge," he said about installing his system.

Cheney hand dug a 300-foot trench to lay pipe and transport water from a creek to his home's power station.

"It took a lot of work digging through a forested area," he said. "The pipeline was a tremendous amount of work."

Cheney said he believes there is potential for a small number of Juneau home owners to create their how hydroelectric power, but he didn't know whether it would be cheaper than the cost of electricity provided by AEL&P.

But AEL&P is willing to work with consumers who want to create their own hydropower but still stay connected to the grid.

"AEL&P would certainly be willing to work with customers who want to (create their own hydropower," AEL&P's Scott Willis said in an e-mail response. "We wouldn't be able to design systems for people, or anything like that, but would want to work with them on the interconnection details."

Rep. Paul Seaton (R-Homer) sponsored House bill 228 last session, which is a net metering bill that would require utility companies to work with consumers who install solar, wind and hydro power systems in their homes and businesses. The bill died in committee but Seaton said he will try again next session.

Seaton said there are net metering laws in 42 states. Utility companies would be required to provide consumers with a credit for surplus power produced.

"We need to encourage individuals to take responsibility for their energy needs," he said. "If they wish to invest in renewable energy then we should encourage that."

The Regulatory Commission of Alaska is currently reviewing the docket and has until August to decide whether it will adopt the federal net metering definition, or the RCA could create an Alaska-specific definition or even draft a new docket, which could drag out the issue for years.

Seaton is optimistic the RCA will either proceed with further public meetings and make a ruling by August or else place the decision in the hands of legislators.

The city of Juneau has established a sustainable development commission. Information about these efforts can be viewed at:

Shaul said he will assist other residents with advice and guidance who also wish to generate hydro power. Questions can be submitted to