Green is in, carbon emissions are the hottest topic of discussion and suddenly everyone is talking about alternate energy. Should the world go solar, or will it be the wind mills that spin the story of earth’s rescue? There are news flashes about artificial trees, about algae farming for bio fuel, how the future energy source is hydrogen…. the list is endless.
There is one thing that we will do well to remember.
Generating alternative energy is a great idea but only after we have reduced our energy consumption. The real solution lies in reducing electricity consumption and not in finding alternative sources of energy. As long as old inefficient devices like incandescent bulbs continue to waste energy, alternative energy will be a very expensive proposition both financially and ecologically. That we are allowing this to happen in spite of the fact that much more efficient options, like LED lights, are available is shocking to say the least.
- An LED Light offers better return on investment than any alternative energy system.
- Installation is a breeze as opposed to alternative energy generation systems.
- Even if you do install an alternative energy system – you should consider switching to LED's, as the electricity you produce to get off the grid will be reduced with this energy efficient technology. They will reduce your electricity load and you will need a much smaller (and much less expensive) alternative energy system.
- They are cheaper to own than incandescent bulbs at 12 cents per kWh utility power, at the higher rates of solar or wind energy they are absolute must haves.
Setting up an alternative energy system
1. The first step in setting up an alternative energy resource for off grid power is to determine how much power you need to generate. You need to take a look at the wattage rating of all your appliances and determine how many of them will be switched on at any given point of time. A typical house hold has a load of 3-4 kilowatts at any given point of time.
2. Generating enough off grid power to power all your appliances is a costly affair and providing sufficient back up will take the cost of the power through the roof. Better still, you can reduce your costs by hooking into the existing grid and installing a two way meter. A two way meter spins backwards when you produce more than what you consume. Even before you begin calculating how much alternative energy you will need to generate – you need to take a second look at your appliances. As long as appliances based on century old devices like the bulb continue to waste electricity setting up an alternative energy resource makes little sense. Consider replacing old energy efficient appliances with Energy Star certified appliances.
3. Replace all your power wasting devices with more energy efficient ones. The incandescent bulb in your fixtures, for example, are using only 3% of the electricity supplied to them to produce light! The rest is being converted to heat. It is time to replace them with energy efficient LED lighting that can produce the same amount of light by using 80% less power and last up to 50 times longer.
4. Choose one or a combination of alternative energy systems you would like to install from the list below.
Solar has always been the energy of the future. Solar offers you direct heating devices like the solar water heater and solar cooker and electricity generating photo-voltaic modules. Photo-voltaic panels are solid state devices that are relatively maintenance free. With tax credits they have also become a practical proposition in many areas. A solar panel has a payback period of 10 – 20 years. If you have heard about the large amounts of carbon emitted in its manufacture – rest assured that on the carbon front it breaks even in a couple of years. And with the amount of money being used to design and develop new photo-voltaic technologies, it is only a matter of time before we see higher efficiency panels on the market. This will allow the home owner or business owner to produce more electricity with less panels. And like every new technology, one they start becoming as common as LED screens, the price per panel will also drop.
1. Solar PV panels are modular but every time you upgrade you will have to change the inverter also.
2. Solar panels are low maintenance but perform best if they are not covered with dust. You must keep them clean.
3. Solar panels work even at night by using star light and ambient light (they produce less electricity though).
4. Without suitable storage devices or grid connectivity – solar alone cannot power your home.
5. The cost of a solar PV system can range between $20,000 to 80,000. So shop around.
6. If you generate excess electricity but the money you will generate from selling electricity back to the utility company. Such systems work in combination with two way meters.
If you reduce your electricity usage by installing energy efficient products you can opt for a smaller and therefore less expensive system.
Wind energy has been around since 100 B.C. In the US, the southeast and east central US generally do not have good wind speeds. Elsewhere wind energy can be a feasible alternative. A single large wind energy turbine can power 500 homes. For small stand alone wind energy turbines that are best suited to individual off grid electricity generation attempts
1. You will need average wind speeds of at least 9 miles per hour.
2. Wind energy works best if coupled with a photo-voltaic system.
3. You may have to face resistance from next door neighbors who find the wind energy turbines unsightly or too loud. New designs spin like a turn-table and are engineered to be quieter.
4. Shop around for a wind energy system that works well in low wind speeds. You may find that a vertical wind energy turbine is better than a horizontally mounted one.
5. Wind energy is relatively cheaper but has a long payoff period, requires constant maintenance and is intermittent. It is also better suited to rural areas where wind speeds are better.
Large projects are associated with problems of aquatic ecosystem damage. Micro hydroelectricity is a safer alternative energy option that a few lucky homesteads located close to a perennial source of flowing water can experiment with.
1. You need a 20 foot drop with a flow of 100 gallons / minute or if you have a flow of 20 / gallons / minute you will need a 100 foot drop to pull it off.
The advantage of micro hydroelectric projects is that it costs a fraction of the cost of the next best option – Solar.
Bio-fuels or biomass
Most bio-fuels lost the battle even before it began. We really do not have enough land and water resources to produce enough food for the entire world’s people and its billions of cattle and hogs. Producing biodiesel and ethanol on crop land is therefore hardly a wise option.
1. Critics say that Biomass uses more energy to produce than what it creates.
2. Biomass energy from animal and plant waste is the only sustainable solution.
3. Biomass energy can be obtained from direct combustion, biomass gassifiers or landfill gas emissions.
4. Biomass energy is relatively cheap and suited to both urban refuse and rural organic waste.
5. Biomass plants may release volatile organic compounds and methane.
There are some other options like nuclear energy, fuel cells driven by natural gas and the so called oxy-hydrogen energy solutions. We have not featured the second because it depends on fossil fuels and oxy-hydrogen energy because it is an unproven technology criticized by many skeptics. Similarly nuclear energy has been maligned for radiation leakage risks. For people looking to live off grid, nuclear energy is not an option. Many people do not even regard nuclear energy as an alternative energy option.
If you are looking for a good option to reduce your dependence on polluting grid electricity, a major portion of which is produced by burning fossil fuels – solar and small wind energy turbines are options that you can consider. The major problem with both solar and wind energy is the high upfront cost, relatively small amount of electricity produced and reliability of power generation. To get a reliable supply of power, they need to be mated with energy storage devices that raise the costs and make it impractical to run appliances like microwave ovens and air conditioners. Alternately, a small biomass gassifier, preferably working organic waste can help you have a back up for times when both solar and wind fail you.
And the Winner Is?
When it comes to alternative energy sources, there is ‘NO’ miracle solution. It will need collaborative efforts, government incentives like tax breaks and greater awareness to make a dent in our energy budgets. At the end of the day, there really is no alternative to more efficient energy systems. Alternative energy is not and cannot be a license to waste more energy or to continue with our wasteful ways. It is and must be seen as a supplement to energy conservation efforts.
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