You’re a realist, and probably nowhere near “going off the grid.” But you’d love to save money and be kinder to the Earth. How easy is it these days to use alternative energy at home? Corbett Lunsford, technical director at Chicago Home Performance, emphasizes the need to deal with waste before even considering alternative energy.
You’re a realist, and probably nowhere near “going off the grid.” But you’d love to save money and be kinder to the Earth. How easy is it these days to use alternative energy at home?
Corbett Lunsford, technical director at Chicago Home Performance, emphasizes the need to deal with waste before even considering alternative energy.
“Most people's homes are like a Toyota Camry pulling a trailer full of heavy stuff,” Lunsford says, with the weight being the heating, cooling and electric systems.
For the vast majority of us, this is heavier than it needs to be. Often, a well-meaning homeowner’s first thought is to add more “horsepower” via solar or wind, which Lunsford compares to upgrading to a Hummer to deal with the massive load.
Simply adding another power source without dealing with excess energy use first could mean that upwards of 30 percent of the alternative energy generated would go toward dealing with that excess. And that’s wasteful in itself.
The better all-around approach is to first “trim the fat” on the energy consumption in your house. You’ll need an energy audit, and then you can tackle the problems in your home with targeted air sealing, insulation and/or mechanical upgrades. Once you’re confident that your house is as efficient as it can be, you’re ready to investigate alternative energy.
A quick look at the options:
Solar thermal energy, a system that heats water, is a great choice, Lunsford says, and it’s “as good in Chicago as it is in Arizona” because it only needs four hours a day of sunlight to work. It’s about 80 percent efficient, which is a good number, and has no moving parts to maintain.
Solar photovoltaic systems, which convert sun to electricity, aren’t as efficient yet. They should be a much better investment in about five years, though, because huge amounts of research dollars are being poured into its development.
Geothermal energy can work well in the right situation, but it’s expensive to install and can be tough to integrate into an existing home. You’ll need a yard to make this work, and you’ll have to be able to either dig deep or use a broad horizontal swath of earth.
Wind power is not feasible for most homeowners yet, and it ends to be less rewarding than other options. The payback seems to be a 1-to-1 ratio, Lunsford says, because the system pays for itself just as it wears out and needs to be replaced.