Visit the links under “Basic Alternative Energy Topics” for more detailed information about renewable energy sources and home power systems. You’ll find background information about everything from how photovoltaic panels produce electricity, to how buying a new water heater can save you hundreds of dollars.
- Alternative Energy and its Benefits
- Limitations and Possible Solutions
- Special Considerations in Alaska
- Related Links
The term “alternative energy” (also: renewable energy) encompasses a variety of power generation sources. Generally, it refers to electrical power derived from “renewable” resources such as solar or wind energy, as opposed to “single-use” resources such as coal or uranium. The most common forms of alternative energy available for homeowner use today are solar power, wind power and “micro-hydro” power.
The benefits of using renewable energy sources are considerable. From an environmental standpoint, solar, wind and water power are all non-emission power sources. Unlike coal combustion power plants, no harmful exhaust is produced when using alternative energy generators. There is also no worry about toxic or radioactive waste products, as there is with nuclear power.
In addition to the lack of emissions and waste products, no valuable resources are “used up” with renewable resource power generation. If every home on earth were powered with an alternative energy system, it would never cause a shortage of wind, water or sunlight.
For remote sites currently relying on engine generators for electrical power, alternative energy sources present some other advantages as well. Sunlight, wind and flowing water are all available for free, unlike diesel fuel or propane used to power a traditional generator. Also, each of these methods operates virtually silently. Solar panels and underwater turbines make no noise whatsoever, and wind generators produce a low hum at most. Compared to the racket an engine generator makes, even the noisiest wind turbine would be unnoticeable.
For homes currently relying on grid power, a renewable energy system has still more benefits. Power generated from renewable sources can be stored in a battery bank to provide backup power if utility power fails. In some areas alternative energy generated by a homeowner can be “sold back” to the local utility company, resulting in lower monthly electric bills at the least, and perhaps even generating income for the homeowner with a large renewable energy system.
With all these various benefits, you may wonder why renewable energy systems are still relatively rare. Unfortunately, despite continuing advances in the industry, in many cases there are still significant financial drawbacks to relying on alternative energy as a sole home power source.
For major utility companies, there are a couple of major deterrents to large-scale alternative energy generation. The cost of building a wind or solar “energy farm” can be prohibitive when compared to the cost of upgrading or maintaining their current coal plants or large hydroelectric dams. In addition, installing enough large solar panel arrays or industrial-size wind turbines to produce the huge amounts of energy required by utility companies takes up a great deal of land. Not every electric company has the geographic resources or the financial willingness to overcome these obstacles.
For homeowners currently using grid power, the cost per kilowatt-hour for utility power is usually lower than the cost of alternative power. This obstacle could be partially overcome for individuals able to sell power back to their utility, depending on the price the utility offers for renewable energy. However even if the local utility company is quite generous with their buy-back prices, the initial cost of a large residential alternative energy system can run in excess of $10,000.
This initial outlay is a primary reason more individuals don’t feel able to invest in renewable energy. This obstacle can be mitigated due to the availability of government-subsidized loan programs for alternative energy development. A low interest loan, combined with the increase in property values created by the installation of such a system, suddenly makes the cost of alternative energy seem much more reasonable.
Also, an alternative energy system can start very small and be easily expanded as your finances allow. A single solar panel or wind turbine could be installed for well under $1000. Even a small system will help reduce dependence on generator or utility power. The components that would need to be replaced as the system grows are relatively inexpensive, and the major components, such as solar panels, wind turbines and storage batteries, can be purchased one at a time and added to the existing system.
A remote off-grid home is probably the most economical and practical use for an alternative energy system at this point in time. While the initial cost of installing a system may be higher than the initial cost of buying a generator, the long term savings of not having to keep the generator constantly supplied with fuel are considerable (and will only increase as fuel prices rise). For homes already equipped with a generator, the alternative energy system can slowly take over the generator’s duties as the system is expanded.
Eventually, the generator will only be needed as an occasional back-up power source, with very little annual fuel consumption. Over the approximate 20-year lifespan of a well-designed alternative energy system, the savings on generator fuel will more than make up for the installation costs, and the added peace and quiet of the silent renewable energy system is a priceless benefit.
In addition to financial considerations, many people mistakenly think that Alaska’s unique climate renders it an impractical location for alternative energy use. However, renewable energy is entirely viable even in such harsh climates, as long as some additional factors are taken into consideration when designing arctic energy systems.
While solar panels are viable as year-round power sources in more southerly climates, they’re of very limited use during an Alaskan winter. A home in Arizona may be able to operate on a solar-only system all year, a home in Alaska won’t. A water generator is only a viable power source if you have a ready supply of unfrozen running water, again leading to the need for other power sources during winter. For year-round power in an Alaskan renewable energy system, a ‘hybrid’ system is the only reasonable choice. Solar panels can provide plentiful power during the long hours of summer sun, but wind generators should be added to help support the system through the winter months.
Although wind generators provide the most useful alternative power source for an Alaskan winter, there’s no guarantee of constant wind power from November through February. Still another backup power source may be needed, especially if your heating system is electricity-dependent. It’s perfectly possible to survive without electric lighting, but surviving without heat at -40ÂºF is quite another question. Having an engine generator on hand for low-wind or high power use days provides the necessary added reliability for an Alaskan off-grid energy system. At the very least, a wood stove or other non-electric heat source should be considered a necessity.
As the alternative energy industry grows and refines the available technology, the cost per kilowatt-hour for renewable energy will decrease, and alternative power generators will become capable of supplying more power from less wind or sun, making them more reliable as a year-round power source. Over time, as fossil fuel resources become scarcer and environmental regulations become stricter, the cost of utility supplied electricity and fuel oil will increase. It’s only a matter of time before alternative power sources present themselves as the only sensible source of electrical power for residential, remote and utility-level power generation.
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EnergyIdeas.org – A large collection of resources, information and links related to all aspects of renewable energy and energy efficiency.
HomePower.com – Home Power magazine online – Excellent information on off-grid power
TheSolarGuide.com: Solar Power Uses – Your guide to understanding how Solar Power can be used.
EcoIQ Energy Information – Information and resources on energy conservation and renewable resources
ChelseaGreen.com – Books on alternative & renewable energy, energy efficiency and more