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How 21st Century off – grid solar technology saved a 19th Century president’s home

In June of 1885, Ulysses Grant, victorious Civil War general and two-term President of the United States, moved to a cottage atop Mount McGregor, in Gansevoort, NY, to fight his final battle. That battle was a delaying action, fighting for time to complete his memoirs, whose royalties would support his family, before dying or terminal throat cancer. (He died just five days after completing them.)

As part of a mountaintop resort, Grant’s cottage had an early form of electricity, from a steam-powered generator. Over the years that followed, a power line from a prison and tuberculosis sanatorium 1,000 feet below replaced the steam generator. Its electricity powered the lighting and heating that preserved Grant’s original furnishings, decorations, personal items and memorabilia. But after 2022, when the facility was decommissioned, that power line had deteriorated to the point that the Ulysses Grant Cottage National Historical Landmark was undergoing 12 power outages a year.

This was a serious problem, said Ben Kemp, operations manager for the Friends of Grant Cottage. “Our main object must be preservation first,” he explained. “If you have nothing here – if you can’t keep the lights on, if you can’t keep the heat on – everything would degrade, and you’d have nothing to show people. There would be no historical value if things fell apart.”

So the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Preservation started exploring alternatives to the exorbitant cost of replacing the power line.

The answer was off-grid solar. Specifically a ground-mounted 30kW off-grid solar + battery storage system that powers the cottage and the visitors’ center.

“This application can be used anywhere you need power that is remote, off-grid, and in a location that’s very difficult to install on,” Kemp noted.

That’s true, but off-grid solar with battery storage can also be great for city and suburban rooftops, as well as for farms.

With it, you could live a perfectly normal life without having to pay a cent to the electric utility. You could live without fears of our obsolescent and overtaxed power grid going down more often and for longer periods of time.

Or, with a connection to the grid, you could sell excess electricity to the power company and have them pay you.

On farms, stand-alone off-grid solar installations can power pumping wells and cattle tanks, irrigating crops, watering livestock, ventilating outbuildings, and warming greenhouses – without the high cost of running power lines.

But not all solar installers are qualified to install battery storage systems.

Milestone Solar has installed more battery storage systems than anyone else within a 200-mile radius of our offices. More than 80% of our installations include battery storage. And there are good reasons why:

Solar systems with battery backup are much trickier to install safely and properly than systems without it. The power grid uses 60-cycle AC (alternating current), which reverses the electron flow every second. But the solar panels and batteries use DC (direct current), where the electrons flow only one way. Converting current between AC and DC, especially at high voltages, is too specialized for even a master electrician’s capability. Fortunately, it’s well within ours. A NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners) Professional Certification is the gold standard of solar expertise, and our CEO is one of fewer than 100 North American installers to have earned two of them.

Many backup batteries can hold a charge only overnight. The batteries we install hold their charge for three or more days at a time.

Some lithium-ion batteries are safer than others. The lithium-manganese-cobalt-oxide (NMC) chemistry in Tesla and LG batteries led to an LG recall in 2020. The lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries we install have an established safety record.

Batteries are no better than the solar panels that power them. Panasonic panels are the world’s highest-performance and most efficient. Milestone is the only solar panel installer in West Virginia qualified to have been named an Authorized Panasonic Solar Installer (and to provide a longer and more comprehensive warranty at no extra cost).

Industry experts say solar with battery backup (storage) will be the big growth segment over the next few years.  If this appeals to you, we invite you to speak with some of our dozens of satisfied customers and let us design and install a battery backup system – either off-grid or bimodal – for you.

Why satellite and drone imagery is no substitute for a free on–site, in–person solar survey

Many solar installers use satellite and drone imagery to determine whether a specific building is suitable for rooftop solar modules. So does Milestone Solar – but only as a first step.

Looking at a potential solar site by remote control is much quicker and easier than driving to a site, getting out of the truck, and checking it out. But there’s a lot it can’t tell you.

For example, satellite photos are taken looking straight down, so any images they capture are purely two-dimensional. While they can show you where large objects like HVAC units, chimneys, and trees are, they can’t show you how tall they are or how much shadow they cast. Same goes for the height and size of dormers and gables.

They can’t show whether the land is level or if it slopes, and in which direction.

They can’t show smaller roof obstructions like poles and roof vents that could get in the way of installing solar roof racks. Nor do they show you other buildings nearby, which could be casting shadows that reduce sunlight and solar power.

Satellite imagery isn’t up-to-the-minute; it shows how a property was, not how it is right now. So it could miss things like whether a tree is growing, has been pruned, or cut down.

Satellite photos are taken from miles away (straight up), so they can be grainy or slanted. In addition to obscuring important details, they can distort dimensions. 

And satellite photos don’t show where the electric meter is, which is important to know for placing conduits. Relying on satellite imagery alone means that any and all of these shortcomings can cut into the power your solar installation generates.

Drones, which we also use, can provide lots of important information that satellite photos can’t, but they don’t have x-ray vision. So they can’t tell you whether a roof is strong enough for a solar array, what condition it’s in, or where and how thick the supporting beams are.

That’s why Milestone won’t submit a customengineered solar design or install a single module without first conducting a free, onsite, inperson solar survey. If your home or commercial building is fine for rooftop solar, we’ll tell you and proceed to a detailed estimate of parts, costs, schedules, and power output. If not, we can talk about a groundmount installation (which many other solar installers can’t perform).

And if for any reason your site just isn’t right for solar, we’ll tell you that too. Because we’d rather forgo a job then do it any way short of absolutely right.