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» 21-Day Archive



Published Tuesday
March 22, 2005

Powered by principle, family pulls plug




LYONS, Neb. - "Energy independence" is more than a political slogan for the Robert Byrnes family. It's a way of life.

Click To Enlarge  
Robert Byrnes near his children's playhouse, where a battery backup for the family's wind turbine is is situated.

A year ago, the rural farmstead unplugged itself from the state's electrical power grid.

Aside from a few hunting or fishing shacks, it is one of the few full-time residences in the state with electricity that doesn't come from a distant power plant.

Byrnes, a 39-year-old chemical engineer, also is promoting construction of a soy biodiesel plant in Burt County so that the fuel can be produced locally.

Scanning a windswept horizon that includes harvested soybean fields, the Army veteran of the Persian Gulf War said Americans need to utilize the renewable energy around them rather than becoming more dependent on oil from the Middle East and elsewhere.

"In my mind, self-sufficiency and freedom are synonymous," said Byrnes, who moved his family from New Jersey to Lyons five years ago.

The 10-acre farmstead five miles northeast of town generates its own electricity via an 85-foot-tall, 1,000-watt wind turbine and a 4,000-watt, hand-started generator powered by ethanol.

A bank of 12-volt truck batteries stores a two-day supply of electricity from the wind.

Another wind turbine will be installed soon, along with a bank of solar panels to increase the farm's electricity-generating capacity, which varies widely, depending on whether the generator is running.

Byrnes said his goal is not necessarily to save money but to prove that he can become energy independent. He said his monthly energy expenses - absent about $5,000 he has invested in equipment - are about the same as they were when he paid a utility bill.

"It's not for everybody, but it's a very doable thing," he said. "And it's a very rewarding thing."

  Click To Enlarge
All of the Byrnes family power needs are supplied by a wind turbine and an ethanol-powered generator.

It has required some sacrifices and its share of trials and errors.

For the first six months, before the wind tower was erected, the Byrneses and their four children used candles for light at night to avoid running the generator all day. They use a wood stove for heat.

"It's like 'Green Acres,'" joked his wife, Terra, referring to the old television show about city folks moving to the country.

"Some of the appliances have been victims of my experiment," said Robert Byrnes, referring to popped fuses and energy surges in the early months.

Sacrifices include concentrating high-electric-use chores - washing clothes, cooking with a microwave oven and using the desktop computer - to mornings and evenings, when the generator is running.

The Byrneses have switched to a percolator on a gas stove rather than an electric drip coffee maker. They go without central air conditioning, even though it is installed at the farmhouse.

When it gets hot, the family sleeps in cooler areas of the home and uses fans and a window air conditioner in the living room.

"The stuff you have to give up are luxury stuff anyway," Robert Byrnes said. "I think Americans as a whole can give up some luxuries."

For transportation, one family car can run on high-grade "E-85" ethanol, but it is available at only six stations in Nebraska, and the closest is 75 miles away, in Omaha.

Byrnes said he is looking to replace the family's other car, one that burns regular unleaded gas, with one that runs on diesel.

To get local fuel for that car, Byrnes has drawn up a business plan for a 1 million gallon, $675,000 plant to produce soy biodiesel. Although more than 200 stations in the state offer the soy product, it is not yet produced in Nebraska. He said he hopes to exchange his engineering work for fuel from the plant.

"This is a labor of passion," he said. "It's not about the money; it's about the principle."

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