The Coming New Energy Age


Energy efficiency. It is not as sexy as installing a PV or solar hot water system, it doesn’t produce power, nor is it really something that can be seen or felt. However, I begin almost every sales call with the same statement:

The first and most important part of any renewable energy system is conservation. Take any and all steps necessary to reduce your electrical and heating loads first, then consider an alternative energy system.

These steps include:

  1. Replacing inefficient appliances with Energy Star models
  2. Replacing incandescent lights with CFLs
  3. Installing timer switches on bathroom fans, heat lamps and other similar fixtures
  4. Eliminate phantom (standby) electrical loads
  5. Add installation to attic, walls and floors
  6. Increase attic ventilation to reduce summer heating load
  7. Replace old single glazed windows with double pane units

Once these steps are done, then properly sized alternative energy systems can be installed. These include:

  1. Solar Domestic Hot Water. This requires a good south facing exposure with little or no shade between the hours of 9am to 3 pm all year long.
  2. Solar How Water space heating. This requires a very well constructed house, preferably with radiant floor heating and a very good south exposure with no shading.
  3. Solar Thermal air heating units. This requires a good south facing vertical wall with no shade
  4. Photovoltaics system properly sized for 50-90 percent of annual electrical load. This requires a south facing exposure with no shade between the hours of 9am to 3pm (preferably longer) year round.
  5. Small WInd Turbine. This requires a good wind resource and zoning allowance
  6. Micro Hydro plant. If a small stream or pond is available, this is an excellent energy source.

All of these systems are called distributed power generation. The advantage of distributed power generation is that is has no transmission line losses, which can be as high as 20 percent of the total power generated. They can be operated in a stand alone situation, grid connected or a combination of the two. Two systems can be combined to generate power in a hybrid system, an example of this is a PV/wind system.

In short, a renewable energy system allows you to control your own destiny and not be in the hands of the local utility company.

We are terrible at converting energy to useful purpose, with an overall efficiency of around 35%:

Check out the transportation sector. Cars, trucks and other vehicles are extremely inefficient, averaging around 26%. In this time of $4.00 per gallon gas, that means that for every gallon of gas you purchase, 3 dollars is burned and dissipated as waste heat.

Unfortunately, the only control an average consumer can have over the transportation industry is to purchase the most fuel efficient options available. Thus, we are at the mercy of the car companies to design more fuel efficient models if we want to own a car.

Residential energy use is a different matter. The largest energy waster is electrical generation. Every homeowner can take steps to reduce their electrical load right now. Here are a few things that everyone can do little or no cost:

  1. Vacuum the refrigerator condensing coils off every 6-12 months (the condensing coils are located on the back or bottom of the unit). Make sure the unit has enough air circulation to cool the coils as needed. If the air is restricted by dirt or blocked by a wall, it can make the appliance work harder. Many freezers have a “condensation saver” setting. This is a heat strip embedded in the freezer door that uses quite a bit of power. Turn it off and wipe up the condensation with a rag every so often.
  2. Make sure that your air conditioner is in good shape. Wash the condensing coils off at least once per year, (these are located outside and can often get clogged with dirt, leaves, and other debris) change or clean the air filter too.
  3. Dishwashers should be ran only when full. Use the “air dry” or “energy saver” settings for drying the dishes.
  4. Make sure that you clothes dryer lint trap is emptied after every load. Check the vent and make sure it is not clogged with lint, clean as needed.
  5. If possible, use a clothes line to dry clothes instead of a clothes dryer
  6. Don’t use portable electric heaters if a all possible
  7. Turn the temperature on your hot water heater down, it should be high enough to be comfortable, but not scalding
  8. Replace burned out incandescent lights with CFL bulbs. Remember to dispose of the CFL bulbs properly at the end of there life.
  9. Get rid of phantom loads by unplugging them or turning them off when not in use. These include things like laptop battery chargers, cellphone chargers, TVs, VCRs, DVD players (pretty much anything with a wireless remote control) microwave ovens, etc

One thing is very clear, energy is no longer cheap and in the future may not be plentiful either. I think that most people are used to electric lights, hot and cold running water, heated or cooled buildings, cooked food, cold storage for perishables, easy transportation, easy communication, etc. Ask yourself this question, could you live without electricity for a week? A month? A year? Longer?

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