Only about 3% of the electricity they generate now comes from renewable sources. That’s biomass, geothermal, wind, and solar combined.
State regulatory agencies require them to produce energy at the least possible cost to consumers, which almost guarantees that they won’t be able to change from, say, coal to solar any time soon.
All of the cost of solar systems comes at the front end. Once they are properly installed, they don’t require much repair or maintenance. You need to set up solar panels to convert energy from sunshine into electricity.
Since that will be direct current, you need an inverter to change it to the alternating current, the kind of power you can use in your home or business. You can also get a bank of storage batteries. That way, you can use at night what your system generates during the day.
Wind turbines have moving parts and therefore require more maintenance. They also require a different inverter. Therefore, you will need two inverters to use both solar and wind power for the same business or home.
The combination has an obvious advantage, though. Some days are sunny with no wind, while others are windy with insufficient sun. The wind turbine will generate electricity at night.
If you are planning any kind of new construction, that’s the best time to think about installing solar or wind power. It is also the best time to plan other sustainable practices.
The picture at right shows solar panels atop the Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, North Carolina, which earned LEED Platinum certification when it opened in 2007.
It demonstrates that sustainable design and building can be green and profitable, because it cost little more to build than it would have using conventional techniques. The same is true when building a home.
Retrofitting an existing home or business is much less convenient, and you can never bring it to the same level of sustainability that you can with new construction. Nevertheless, the effort will quickly repay the upfront costs and save lots of energy long afterward.
Off grid? or on grid?
Some people prefer not to deal with the electric company at all. They set up their solar system–or a system of solar and wind generators–and run all of their appliances completely off the grid. That kind of system would have the highest upfront costs. It is probably practical only in places that get ample sunlight all year long.
I don’t know if the house pictured here is off the grid, but it’s a great example of a do it yourself project.
The panels that have snow on them probably weren’t contributing much electricity when the picture was taken, but the wind turbine works at times when the panels don’t. Notice it is not in a rural area but in a fairly ordinary looking neighborhood.
For most people, there are advantages to installing solar or wind power and remaining on the grid. In that case they have a backup in case they can’t generate all the electricity they need. They can also sell electricity to the electric company.
While I know that at least some electric are actively installing solar farms, it is likely that a fair percentage of the solar power they report to the government come from their customers’ installations.
For people who install do it yourself wind or solar systems and remain on the grid, there are basically two choices for working with the power company. One is called net metering. Under this system, you have one electric meter. It spins one direction when you are using electricity from the grid and the other direction when the grid is taking your excess. Your bill is based on the sum of those two figures.
In the other system, buy all, sell all, you don’t actually use any of the electricity you generate with your solar panels or wind turbine. You sell it to the utility. Your home or business operates as it always has on the power you buy from the utility. Therefore, you will have two meters, an electric bill, and money coming back from the electric company.
Whether it’s best to use net metering or buy all, sell all depends on the regulatory climate and incentives available where you live.
Easy and less expensive do it yourself solar projects
Not everyone can afford the high upfront costs of installing a full solar or wind power system. That still leave plenty of smaller but very practical solar applications for your home or business:
- solar outdoor lighting
- solar motion-activated security lighting
- solar lights for your attic, garage, or shed
- solar vents for your attic, garage, or shed
- solar hot water heater
These smaller do it yourself projects, and any others I’m not thinking of at the moment, have built-in solar sensors and rechargeable batteries. They don’t require an inverter, because they can run on the direct current from the sensor or battery. They don’t require any extra wiring and don’t use electricity from the power company.
Many of these products cost less than $100, and the most expensive would be in the hundreds of dollars, not the thousands of dollars it takes to install a whole-house system.
If you want solar or wind power and want to use less coal, imported oil, or nuclear power, for the foreseeable future you’ll have to do it yourself. Even with the best conceivable corporate will and regulatory climate, it is unreasonable to expect the utilities to go from generating less than 3% of their output from renewable sources to generating all of it.
What impact can one home or business have? Not much. How much impact can tens of millions of homes or businesses have on increasing the use of solar or wind power? It will be a world changer.