Alternative Energy Sources - pick from renewables, sustainables and other frugal choices
There are alternative energy sources available to most of us, no matter where we live, so there is no reason why we shouldn't at least investigate to see if we can cost-effectively take advantage of them.
Let's all generate our own energy to the extent that we can, and to the extent that it provides good return on investment. These sentiments aren't typically what you hear from alternative energy enthusiasts, because I recognize that return on investment can be elusive.
Sometimes the whole idea of cost versus payback gets lost in the euphoria. Yes, some of us are euphoric about alternative energy.
No problem! I understand the excitement. I'm all for it, but I think we need to proceed cautiously so we at least have our eyes wide open about costs associated with:
- maintenance and repair
Only then can we look at financial return in terms of:
- offset of utility bill
- payback for excess power generated
- installation incentives
One of the reasons that harnessing alternative energy sources is off to a modest start in America is because of the high cost versus return. That's one of the reasons there are so many government incentives offered.
Regardless of the state of incentives, some folks are pressing forward with harnessing alternative energy sources, and I'm one of them. I think if done with an eye toward frugal living, some of the sources can be harnessed to provide acceptable payback over the long haul.
And, when it comes to energy, we're all in it for the long haul.
Alternative Energy Sources
Let's talk about what type of alternative energy sources are out there that we might take advantage of. To keep this down to earth, I'm only going to address the ones that are most likely available to a reasonable number of people.
Photovoltaics are the first form or solar power that most people think of when they hear solar power - large flat panels magically converting photons into electrons. It's really quite an amazing technology - a conversion from one form of energy to another, with no moving parts.
There are flat panels that mount on the roof, replacement roofing tiles, rolled roofing for metal roofs, and solar tracking devices to name just a few items. Before you venture into this arena, you'll want to make an assessment of the amount of solar power that's available at your site, and you'll want to find true north as well so you can orient your arrays to capture maximum sunlight.
Wind Power is a good way to augment photovoltaics. Wind blows 24 hours a day, at least it does in Wyoming, and wind blows when it's cloudy and raining. Wind is much more tricky to harness because you have to size the generator and turbine blades and tower just right.
Here are some basics about electricity from wind that you might want to consider.
You also have to make certain that you have good unobstructed "fetch" and sufficient wind to make it worth your while. Just relocate to Kansas or Wyoming, and you'll be all set with respect to wind. Otherwise, conduct a site assessment to see if it makes sense for you.
Maintenance is another issue to consider. An acquaintance of mine said that climbing his 100 foot tower was very exciting, especially if there was any wind to speak of. He exclaimed that sometimes, "it's better than sex."
To eliminate this risk, a tilt-up tower is recommended. These usually make use of a gin pole to help pick up the tower and get it in place.
Solar Cooking is a highly portable means of making use of the sun. Essentially, you have a reflective oven that let's in light and converts it to heat. There are parabolic mirrors for grilling, enclosed devices for baking, and even homemade window mounted devices for cooking and baking.
Using this technology takes a bit of planning. It could be hours longer to cook a meal, and some meals will take all day. In many cases, a solar oven is like a huge slow cooker that you have to turn into the sun throughout the day.
Nevertheless, it's a good use of one of our alternative energy sources, and it's something that I'm going to pursue. This is an area where a "do it yourself" oriented person could excel.
Solar Water Heating is simple to understand and relatively easy to implement. We all can appreciate how water is heated by the sun. We enjoy swimming in the lake in the summer because the sun has warmed the water sufficiently to go swimming.
The trick with solar water heating is to concentrate the sun's energy so it can heat water to temperatures that we find acceptable for use. We're talking hot water, not just warm water.
There are a number of designs to choose from, but the basic choices are flat plate solar hot water panels, the older technology, and evacuated tubes.
Solar Air Heating is another area where a handy person could make their own devices to augment home heating. Plenty of folks have experimented with painted soda cans and a clear covered box with low voltage fans and simple air ducts.
There are commercial products on the market as well that capture warm air in a darkened box and force it into an occupied structure. There are also passive solar walls that allow warm air to rise along the outside wall and enter a building at the top, while allowing cooler air to enter the solar wall at the bottom.
Hydronic Heating is one of the alternative energy sources for heating my home. If you're not familiar with hydronic heating, you might want to take a peek at how hydronic systems work. For a refresher, here are the basics of a hydronic heating system.
Directly related to heating with wood, my hydronic system is homemade, manually controlled and works like a charm. Here is an overview of the homemade hydronic heating system associated with my large living room fireplace insert.
For more details, take a look at the hydronic heating system configuration, the homemade wood stove heat exchangers, my custom made furnace air plenum, the water-to-air heat exchanger, baseboard heating, hydronic system protection, instrumentation and manual controls.
Other details of this heating system consist of pumping and filtration, backup power, and heat storage capability. This is one of the alternative energy sources that isn't for everyone because it requires a bit of work, involves plumbing, electrical work and fabrication, and lots of testing to make certain it all works as intended.
There are also issues like system corrosion, automatic operation and dissimilar metals to be aware of and deal with. The good news is that you can put together basic hydronic heating as one of your alternative energy sources, and then install some of the "bells and whistles" on it later after you have a better handle on how it operates.
Micro Hydro is for those of us who have water running through our property with sufficient flow and drop in elevation to provide adequate head. This is going to be less common for most people, but if you have it then you know you have one of the best alternative energy sources out there. You'll be in great shape because water runs 24 hours a day.
If you have sufficient running water in your driest month, say August, generally you can count on sufficient water to generate electricity all year long.
There are several styles of generators. Some require a dam, and some require a penstock to feed the generator. If you have the flow and the drop in elevation, I'd try to harness this most excellent of alternative energy sources.
Hydrogen and Methane aren't alternative energy sources as much as they're products of other alternative energy sources. For example, hydrogen can be produced using photovoltaics or wind power. Methane can be produced using a manure digester.
Hydrogen is being used on an experimental basis for the time being, and it has applications around the home and on the road. There's lots of research and discussion about a "Joe cell" as a means of generating hydrogen as well.
The old standby is electrolysis using DC power. It's proven technology when it comes to generating hydrogen. Folks are also adding a catalyst to the water that enhances the amount of hydrogen (and oxygen) generated.
The main issues with hydrogen are safety and storage. And, safe storage is one of the biggest concerns.
My primary interest in hydrogen is to operate an outdoor grill, heat water, and improve fuel economy in my vehicles.
I'm also interested in using hydrogen as a type of "battery." My approach will be to use my excess electrical generation to create hydrogen, then use the hydrogen in an engine to produce power when other means of electrical generation are lacking.
Waste Oil is something that I hesitate to put here, but it's where it really belongs. Waste oil is one of the alternative energy sources. Whether you're operating waste oil heaters or making your own biodiesel, you're making use of an energy source that is considered alternative - it's based on waste or recycled material, so it's an alternative source of energy in my mind.
Nevertheless, some of these waste oil choices aren't as green or sustainable as we might like, but they can be a frugal approach to providing energy for around the home and on the road.
Anything that isn't mainstream is something that I would consider as one of the alternative energy sources.
Let's Decide on Our Alternative Energy Sources
With all the alternative energy sources our there in front of you, the choices are yours to make.
As for me, I'm going to focus on photovoltaics, wind power, solar hot water, hydronic heating, waste oil heating, and generation of hydrogen. I think these will suit my needs and interests just fine. I'm already on my way with hydronic heating and solar water heating. I've installed my own hydronic heating system in association with my main wood stove, and purchased my wind turbine tower already. I also have a collection of waste oil and I have suitable storage tanks for hydrogen.
My first application for solar heating is underground heating inside my greenhouses with flat plate solar water heater panels. It's working just fine, so soon I'll be off to other projects that make use of alternative energy sources.
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