Every boy’s got his favorite toy. For Howard Butts, it’s an electric meter that runs backwards when the sun shines.
Green energy enthusiast Howard Butts recently installed an array of photovoltaic panels atop one of his outbuildings. The panels generate about 1,900 watts of electricity at peak times. Observer photo/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH
Butts, a rural Summerville resident known for his involvement in green energy, finds great joy watching his meter spin in reverse, recording his energy savings.
Money saved on a power bill isn’t the issue, though. After all, his recently-installed photovoltaic system that makes energy from the sun will only save him about $200 a year.For Butts, the heart of the matter is energy conservation. He was raised, as he says, to love the earth and conserve resources in every way possible.
It’s all about doing his part, and setting an example.
“The bottom line is, everybody should be responsible for their own energy consumption,” he said last week as he talked about his system, which he built with help from Union County’s renewable energy assistance program.
Butts is a Missouri product who moved to Oregon in the 1970s. While living in Bend, he joined an energy conservation group, and, as part of a class, helped build a solar panel.
Butts used the panel when the class was over. It was a success, and an inspiration.
“I used it in conjunction with a woodstove to heat water. I turned off my water heater and didn’t turn it on again for five years,” he said.
Later he and his wife moved to Union County, where he started a plumbing business. Later, he retired from plumbing and became the owner and manager of Bearco Loop, a business park on Island Avenue in La Grande.
Through the years, he continued tinkering with green energy devices. Once, he converted a Mercedes Benz automobile to run on vegetable oil.
Later, he bought a pickup truck powered by batteries. He drove the truck on an almost daily basis, paying zero for gas, until the batteries wore out.
The batteries are expensive to replace, so for now, the truck stands idle. But no matter — in keeping with a longtime goal, Butts has turned his attention to photovoltaic power.
“Solar produces heat for water, but photovoltaics converts solar energy to electricity. That’s a technicality everybody needs to get used to,” he said.
This summer, Butts contracted with Kent Osterberg of Blue Mountain Solar to install a nine-panel photovoltaic array on the roof of Butt’s shop. “I had the parameters and Kent designed and installed it,” Butts said.
In addition to mounting the panels, the project also involved upgrading existing electrical components, running conduit, and installing a manual lockout disconnect switch, a safety feature that turns the power off when power isn’t coming down the utility line to the property.
“I’m Howard Henry Butts, named for my grandfather who was killed by a wire that was live but wasn’t supposed to be,” Butts said. “I know that every year, 6-10 lineman are killed by systems that don’t have the proper safety disconnects.”
Butts turned his system on Sept. 5, and knows by now that it produces about 1,900 watts at the optimum time of day. A software package that came with the system allows him to track energy production.
The software also keeps a detailed record of energy output, and allows Butts to view, for comparison, the energy production of a photovoltaic system owned by the Imbler School District.
Butts will participate in a “net metering” program offered by Oregon Trail Electric Co-Op, the area’s electric provider.
Under the program, owners of small solar, wind, fuel cell and hydroelectric systems can sell power they don’t need back to OTEC, said OTEC spokeswoman Nancy Van Sickle.
“In having the program, we support green energy,” Van Sickle said.
She said OTEC crews were scheduled this week to inspect Butts’ system, especially the lockout device. Once that is complete, Butts will qualify.
While Butts is happy with the way his system functions, he doesn’t plan to stop with just nine panels. He said he wants to double the size someday soon.
Two years ago, Union County established a fund to reimburse individuals and businesses for some of the costs of building renewable energy projects. The grant fund, some $70,000, comes from Community Service Fees paid by wind power company Horizon Wind Energy.
Butts, who is a member of the Union County Renewable Energy Advisory Committee, was the first resident to receive a grant.
His photovoltaic system cost $10,000 to build, but with the grant money and tax incentives, he will end up spending about $4,000.
“The grant program is a wonderful symbolic thing,” he said. “That plus the tax incentives had a lot to do with my putting the project up.”
He said he encourages others to consider building renewable energy projects and applying to the grant program.
The renewable energy committee is tasked with reviewing applications and making recommendations for approval to the county board of commissioners.
Butts said the grant process isn’t as difficult as people might think.
“We haven’t had many applicants, and I think that’s because people are afraid of the requirements. But we’re very relaxed and we will work diligently with anyone who wants to put a project together,” he said.
The advisory committee meets every third Thursday in the Union County Board of Commissioners conference room at 1106 K Ave.
The meetings are open to the public. Butts said he hopes people interested in renewable energy will consider attending.
“These are meetings where people can learn about renewable energy and receiving grants,” he said.
He added that he is always eager to talk with people about renewable energy.
His phone number is 963-7711.