Friday, November 10, 2006

Renewable Energy: Plausible Possibilities

With the recent interest in urban farming, I have found that there are a number of options that are available to those who are interested in growing their own food year round. That being said, it also takes a number of resources, not the least of which include the need for energy to control the growing climate. This is no less true when it comes to growing tropical and subtropical plants in Utah. It definitely represents a problem, as increased energy costs can greatly off-set the savings from growing your own vegetables.

With this problem in mind, I began to look at my options. A couple of years ago, shortly after I began at eBay, I looked into the cost of solar power. It was very interesting to me, particularly since I found a set up that would have been ideal, if not for the cost. So I gave that up as a future plan for a future home. The future home I have planned out will be quite remarkable, and even more so if I can get it built. But that's for another post.

So, I began by checking out my options. I knew I was looking for something ecologically friendly, particularly since the current weather in the Salt Lake Valley makes it prone to inversion, which traps air polutants within the valley. I also wanted something that would generate energy that would take fewer resources in the long term than utility bills currently do. For that, I would be willing to fit a moderately hefty bill for installation and equipment cost. But what to choose?

The Resources
The first resource I found was exactly what I needed. It was, an online version of a magazine of the same name. Here, I found an article by Dan Casale called "Prepaid Power: Putting Renewables to Work for You". Here, you can look at the options that are best for you. It breaks it down into a nice flowchart to decide which renewable resource is best for you.

The next was the Utah Geological Survey's website for the State Energy Program. It seems that there are some nice tax credits for those that qualify, and they outline all qualifications. It's also in plain English, and not Legislative nonsense. That I really like.

The Renewable Options
There are a number of renewable options out there, depending on the location of your house. The four that are available for tax credits are solar energy (passive, solar thermal, and solar photovoltaic), wind, water, and biomass (landfill gases, animal waste, etc.). All these options can qualify for a tax credit of some sort.

Solar is a good option in my book, because Utah gets plenty of sun, both during the summer and winter. I also have a south-facing house, which is perfect for setting up solar panels on the roof. That being said, it's also really expensive to have them installed. Solar can be a very viable option, if the costs were reduced to the point of affordability.

Wind is also a good option, but not in and of itself. Wind power in my part of the Salt Lake Valley is problematic, as the wind doesn't constantly blow. And, it also means a special permit for setting up a wind generator on the roof, which can also be problematic within West Valley City limits.

Water is perfect, as it's less expensive than all other options, is as constant as the flow of it's source, and is very esthetically pleasing once installed. The problem is, I don't live by a constant flowing source of water. There is an irrigation ditch behind my neighbor's house, but not by mine, and not constantly flowing. So this was completely out of the question.

The final option is also not logical for my needs, as I don't live near enough to a land fill (on purpose, you understand!), and do not have the source for animal waste that would make it feasible. Needless to say, this option was not at all considered.

So, that leaves me with two parts of the same puzzle, solar and wind. Both can be feasible, but neither can provide me with a constant source of energy if working alone. But, if both were installed together, it would mean that on most days I would have sunlight and a light breeze, generating energy. Then, when the day is cloudy or stormy, it would generally also be windy too. That greatly reduces the days of living off the battery (or power grid).

Other Considerations
Now that I have decided on the ideal options for renewable energy features, it's time to figure out what I actually need. First, I need to know how much energy I use, and what the system will cost overall. Then I need to decide on the implementation of the system, and how it will best benefit me. Finally, I need to find out if the incentives make the project financially viable.

Calculating the energy that you use monthly is easy: all you need is your monthly power bill. There it will tell you what power you use monthly by kilowatt hours (KWH). Most households use roughly 900 KWH a month, which means that the system you build needs to either complement existing power usage, or completely replace it. The more you use, the bigger the system will need to be, and the bigger the cost. This means that if you work on conservation (low-wattage light bulbs, turning off lights when they are not in use, etc.), you can decrease the cost of the replacement system. You can also decrease the cost of your power bill too, if a replacement system is too expensive even with conservation options. Once you know what you are aiming for, you can create a good plan for implemention.

Next, you need to know what the costs will be for your system. In this case, I needed to find a good website that provided an estimate that made sense. Initally I found a great website,, where I could have them determine my needs based on my power usage. I found that for my needs I could build a Solar/Wind hybrid system for around $10,000. This would include wiring and connection boxes to integrate it with my current power system, as well as have a battery backup. I then found a local company in Utah, In Hot Water Heat and Power that has programs for power installation, as well as solar heating and solar hot water heating. If you need to find a dealer outside of Utah, a good website is They list dealers for each US State.

Finally, you need to decide how to implement your system. Namely, whether to install it within the grid, or disconnect from the grid completely. For those that do have the choice, the benefits are that when you feed power back into the grid you actually are required by law to get paid by your power company for generating power for them. But, if the grid goes down (power outage), generally your power goes down as well. You can also go battery only, but then once the batteries are charged, the power switches off from them and there is no place to send the excess power, which is then sent to the ground. Personally, I would choose to have both. You can set up an on-grid system, but still have a battery backup just in case. Check with your local power company for options regarding on and off grid systems, and decide which is best for you.

Once you have all this set up, check for any incentives that your State may provide. Utah has a considerable incentive, up to 25% of the installation cost can be augmented by a tax credit. More information can be found at the Utah State Energy Program website sited earlier. If you are not in Utah, check with your local State energy department. They generally will let you know what is and is not available.

Now, once you have the program outlined... can you afford it? Currently, I can't afford the program that I want, but I can within the near future. That also generally means that costs will go down for the equipment that I would like to get, or I can get more effecient systems for the same amount of cash. The only thing that is not guaranteed is the tax credit, which seems to be a renewed program each year. Hopefully the State legislature will continue the same program many years to come.

Anyway, I hope this little insight into my personal research on renewable energy has been helpful to you. If you need more information, feel free to check out the resources sited. They were of great benefit to me, at any rate.

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