Power for the People: A Guide to Alternative Energy

You have many choices for powering your home, including generating your own. What’s right for you?

| January/February 2009


Using wind energy can lower electricity bills by 50 to 90 percent

With electricity and natural gas prices soaring, chances are you’ve been scrutinizing your home energy use and you may be considering renewable energy. Residential-scale options—solar, wind, geothermal, biodiesel, microhydro—are plentiful, but it’s not always easy to figure out their cost-effectiveness. Retrofitting an existing home for alternative power can be challenging and pricey, but many systems pay for themselves in savings after a few (or several) years. And, of course, there’s the satisfaction of cutting your biggest ties to coal and nuclear power.

Coal accounts for about half of U.S. electricity, and burning coal emits carbon dioxide (a global warming gas), additional pollution and heavy metals.  Nuclear plants make up another 19 percent through radioactive uranium isotopes, which lead to tons of nuclear waste. The United States imports natural gas from Canada (through pipelines) and from other countries as liquefied natural gas (LNG). In 2004, the United States imported 19 percent of its natural gas from foreign sources, and the demand is rising.  The natural gas industry says the United States has enough natural gas embedded in its shale deposits to last 118 years and new drilling technology should be able to get natural gas from the shale.

The good news is that more renewables are showing up in the utility mix. Wind could provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and many cities are promoting alternative energy. Chicago, for instance, recently amended its building code to allow rooftop wind turbines. In addition, solar thermal electric plants, sometimes called concentrating solar power (CSP), are popping up in the Southwest. A large plant was just completed outside Las Vegas, and many new plants are on the drawing boards. CSP is the second most cost-effective renewable energy source after wind. A 100-by-100-mile area in the desert could supply all of the nation’s electricity needs.

Your energy choices

“Before looking at renewable components, evaluate your home’s energy efficiency,” says Ron Judkoff, director of the Buildings and Thermal Systems Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “That’s the most cost-effective place to start.” You can save energy by upgrading attic and wall insulation; installing a programmable thermostat, high-efficiency furnace and energy-efficient appliances; and replacing incandescent lights with compact fluorescents.

You also can reduce the need for air conditioning by restricting the amount of sunlight that enters through windows.  An energy audit can help show you how.  “Once you’ve installed the most costeffective energy-efficiency measures, then consider renewables,” Judkoff says. “In some locations you can purchase wind power directly from your utility company for little or no additional cost.” Cutting back now could also save you money when you’re ready to invest in an alternative energy system—fewer watts consumed means fewer solar panels required. 


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