Imagine waking up each morning knowing that the shower you take, the laundry you dry, the coffee and toast you make are all done with clean power produced at your home. Imagine paying much less each month for your power bill, getting a check in the mail for your investment, increased equity in your home, and a significant break from the IRS on your taxes.
If you want to start greening your own home and wonder where to put your energy, conserving energy purchased from the grid will have the greatest impact to mitigate global warming. According to the EPA, buildings in the US account for 68% of total electricity consumption and 38% of the carbon dioxide emissions.
Here are a few installations that can have very noticeable impacts:
Solar PV Panels. Why not convert an abundant, clean, inexhaustible source of energy into power? The PV stands for photovoltaic, meaning the system turns light into electricity, or photons into voltage. And there are plenty of those photons passing through clouds in abundantly grey, rainy places, like the Pacific Northwest, for example. What if you are not home to take advantage of your home generated solar electricity? Well, the electricity goes back out through your meter – spins your meter backwards, and is available for neighbors, schools and businesses to use, reducing your annual electric bill significantly. Washington State Production Incentive pays you 15 cents for every kilowatt-hour of energy your system produces, whether you use it or not. Additionally, when you invest in solar, you can deduct 30% of the cost of the solar energy system from your federal taxes. And, new since 2009, there is no limit to how much you can deduct. What other investment earns you a 30% return in its first year? Consultation with a solar expert will also pay for itself. Kirk Haffner of South Sound Solar in Olympia, WA explains: “We measure your solar site potential. We accurately calculate how well a solar system at this location will perform. We inspect your home to ensure the roof, framing, electrical, plumbing, etc. are satisfactory. We review the home design (lay-out) to optimize the route from the solar to the home systems.” Kirk adds, “Even though many of my customers talk about costs and payback, and clean energy and sustainable communities, they often point to the real reason why they are making the decision to install solar – their children and grandchildren.” Imagine if we can all generate energy from our roofs in the near future.
Solar Hot Water Systems. For almost everyone in the US, the energy to heat water for household use is typically 20-40% of your total power bill. It becomes clear when you think about showers, baths, dishwashers and laundry coming from a tank that is continually fueled to keep a hot temperature. Using the sun’s energy, captured in a system of fluid tubes and run in a “closed loop” to an exchanger that transfers the heat from the fluid to your hot water, you can greatly reduce the amount of electricity or natural gas it takes to heat up that cold water and keep it warm for your next shower. (In the fluid is a propylene glycol solution, similar to radiator fluid, but non-toxic, to keep the fluid from freezing.) On average, you can expect solar hot water to provide 60-70% of your annual hot water needs, according to Kirk Haffner. A tank-less hot water heater retrofitted to replace or supplement your hot water heater is an additional way to reduce energy usage.
Daylighting. Another great use for the sun, daylighting is the term used by architects for bringing the right amount of daylight into an interior space in order to enhance the quality of light and to reduce on electricity. Consultation with a designer or architect would be a wise approach to maximize your options. According to Elizabeth Diane of Lucid 9 Design, the placement of windows in combination with appropriately sized overhangs, landscaping trees and sun-shades can eliminate the need for air-conditioning in the northwest while allowing natural light to brighten your rooms. A simple retrofit for existing homes and rooms without windows are tubular daylighting devices, such as Solatube. These roof to ceiling tubes capture the sun’s light and directs it into the room, casting a full spectrum light to enhance your interior environment.
Passive Solar Design. Making a comeback from the 70’s with a mainstream approach is home design that allows the sun to keep your house warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. The design allows the sun to heat an interior thermal mass, such as tile or concrete, capturing the heat and radiating it into the house at night as temperatures drop. Careful analysis is made to shade the home from hot summer sun and allow for natural cooling. This can lower your annual heating and cooling bill by 20-40%.
More to Consider. Other sources of alternative energy for the home are on the rise and becoming more affordable. Geothermal is a system that uses he earth’s constant ambient temperature (or in some parts of the country, tapping into heat reservoirs below ground) to keep air used to heat and cool the home from thermal weather extremes, then running the air through a condensing unit, bringing the air to the desired temperature. This system uses minimal power to produce heat. Wind in some areas is a great way to produce extra power. The most efficient devices use elegantly-designed blades vertically mounted and levitated on magnets to reduce friction and produce power at minimal wind speeds.
An important aspect of any alternative energy system is looking at the efficiency of the entire system. If you have a leaky house from poor or deteriorated insulation, substantial energy savings are made by installing good insulation. There are new businesses that use infrared photography to determine where your home is losing heat. It makes the most sense to address a heat-leaky home as a first step to reduce power consumption. Blow-in environmentally friendly insulation is an inexpensive way to fill the gaps.
Now, imagine hearing on the morning news, while sipping your tea heated from the sun, that you and people like you have made a difference in reducing pollutants and global warming. Imagine going a step further; your choice supports more innovation in renewable energy so that the norm is inexpensive, abundant, clean energy for everyone. And, further still, most homes are producing at least as much or more power than they consume, resulting in net-zero energy homes. It would be a beautiful new day.