Friday, October 17, 2008

Perpetual Remodeling Syndrome: Alternative residential energy

by Kelly Smith

So you're fed up with your monthly gas and electricity bill? Or you're building a new abode and you want to get off on the right track with controlling how much utility power you have to buy from an outside producer?
What you need are alternate sources of energy. There are several ways to do this and you're free to mix and match in order to reach your energy freedom goals. No, I'm not recommending that you do any strip mining for coal in your backyard or install a nuclear reactor. (Might be a good idea, though.)
Choices for alternative energy sources
When it comes to providing some or all of your own energy sources, you have options, and the viability of these will vary according to where you live. Live out on the open plains? You're a good candidate for windmill type power (wind energy).

If you live in the sun belt (below the Mason-Dixon line), solar power is your ace in the hole.
If you happen to have a stream or fast-moving river in your backyard, you might just be able to harness that power to run your air conditioner, juice up your microwave, and heat your water. Let's look at these energy sources in more detail.
Ideally, you can use a little of all of these methods to meet your energy demands.

Electricity from wind energy
Wind is a great energy source because it's almost always in motion to some extent. And once you've got those big propellers set up and spinning, you're money ahead. Take that, electrical company!
This kind of power is generated using blades, like a fan, mounted on a pole, and incorporated with a wind turbine. The rotational power turns the turbine and converts this energy into electricity. To be most effective, many turbines are connected together on a "turbine farm."

Location of wind turbine farms
These farms are usually situated on plains or beaches. Recently, plans have been made to install floating farms in the Gulf of Mexico off the Texas coast. But for you, just stick them in your backyard. If anything, you might catch some flack from your homeowner's association.
Economical considerations for wind power
Although wind power is "free" as far as the raw material fee goes, there are still construction and operating costs involved. And, since a wind turbine presents a pretty large target, it is considered to be a vulnerable asset during a hurricane or tornado.
Using solar power for a residential energy supply
Solar energy is an even more predictable source of energy than wind. Even in the dog-dead still days of summer the sun shines, and even in the winter when the mercury drops, light energy is light energy. Solar panels also offer a smaller footprint than wind turbines.
They can either be mounted on a pole outside your home or simply laid on and secured to the roof of your home. And who sees it there? It might even keep some of that heat from entering your attic. Win-win, ka-ching!

The cost of solar power panels
Solar panels may sound expensive, and believe me, they are, but when all things are considered, the bite isn't really as bad as the bark. The main manufacturers (which you should use because in this case, a good track record and reputation are gold) are General Electric, Kyosera, Evergreen Spruce, British Petroleum, Sunteck, and Sharp.
These companies are very competitive so the pricing structure is fairly level. As a baseline, for a panel that converts the sun's energy into 200 Watts will run you between $800 and $1000 plus your labor (And just how expensive are you as a DIYer?).
One of the upsides of this is that once it's installed you won't see it on the local bendovernow power company bill. The other upside is that you will qualify for state and federal government tax deductions. Be sure to check your local details.

Using running water as an energy source
OK, granted that this option isn't much used by any but the most adventurous DIY homeowners. But if you're handy, you can put this together. You'll need a paddle wheel and you'll have to attach it to to a turbine, similar to the one used in wind energy generation.
You've likely seen plenty of these kind of set-ups in movies, but used to grind grains rather than turn a turbine. The concept is basically the same.

How does it all work?
Your system will generate the electricity and store it in wet batteries. As you know, wet batteries are a direct current (DC) storage medium. Homes run on alternating current (AC). Hmmm, something must be done to translate the juice.
You'll need a converter, or more properly called, an inverter. Kyosera does market one with their panels as a selling point. The batteries in the system are called deep-cycle batteries. This is unlike your car's battery which is a shallow-cycle battery.
The difference here is that a deep-cycle battery provides a steady low output of electricity whereas your car's battery needs a big jolt when starting and then charges steadily as you drive.
Can you be a stand-alone energy provider for yourself?
Probably not. Whether you use wind, water, or the sun to provide raw material for electricity, nature itself is not going to be as consistent as a power plant burning gas or coal. The solution?

Tie into the local power grid.
When you have less power than you need, buy some. When you have more, sell some; although they won't give you the same price they charge you, tha' bums!
You'll have to ensure the power company that your power is compatible with theirs. It's important to be compatible with both their frequency and sinusoidal waveform. You will also have to be sure that when conventional power in your neighborhood is experiencing an outage, you're not feeding electricity into the lines. You might fry a lineman working on the system!


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