Let’s face it. Energy is expensive, and the most readily available energy is dirty. Some time in the future, it will probably be possible to buy clean and economical electricity retail, but not in the near future. Here are some of the obstacles:
- Electric utilities generate nearly three quarters of their electricity from burning fossil fuels, nearly half of it from coal.
- Aside from hydro-electric power, they generate less than 5% from all renewable sources (solar, wind, biomass, geothermal) combined.
- The current regulatory environment–especially at the state level–makes it unlikely for those percentages to change any time soon.
- With current technology, large-scale solar and wind farms will require too much land to be economically feasible except in open, sparsely populated areas out west or perhaps offshore.
- With current technology, even if such farms already existed, the grid cannot carry it from there to where it is most needed.
- Even with a greater spirit of political cooperation and agreement than has ever existed in this country, the level of funding necessary to develop new technologies and the kind of regulatory climate necessary to encourage it–or at least not discourage it–could not happen very quickly.
Fortunately, the general public does not have to wait for the various levels of government and the various utilities to develop clean and economical retail electricity.
Individual households, farms, and small business can strike out on their own through microgeneration.
That is, they can install their own self-sufficient solar or wind systems, get off the grid, and perhaps get it to pay them for any surplus electricity they generate.
The concept is not new. From the middle of the nineteenth century until decades after the electric grid reached into rural areas, small windmills were ubiquitous on American farms and elsewhere. They were cheap and easy to manufacture. They pumped just as much water as one farm needed to irrigate crops or water livestock. In that way, they present a picture of what microgeneration can look like.
Here are some things that people can either do now with existing technology or will be able to do in the near future with new technology:
- Install full, dedicated solar and/or wind systems sufficient to power their entire house or business to eliminate their electric bills–on or off the grid.
- Install smaller solar projects, such as solar hot water heaters, vents, or outdoor lighting to reduce their electric bills.
- Install digesters to convert household garbage and sewage into methane to supplement natural gas.
- Install microbial fuels cells to generate electricity from home sewage. (Imagine disconnecting from the municipal sewer system or getting rid of your sceptic tank! This fairly new technology will probably be available for small-scale use long before its scalable for an entire wastewater treatment plant.)
It will cost anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars to put any of these plans into effect. Certainly not everyone can afford the steep upfront costs. The return on investment, though, is surely better than the stock market can produce during the best of times. Depending on the scale of your project, and how well designed it is, it will pay for itself in a matter of a few months or a few years.