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Renewable resources are on the rise in the US, with solar and wind power among the top four sources for new power capacity in 2013.  In Texas, solar and wind generators are now outbidding fossil fuel plants to provide cheap and reliable electricity. 

Technology moves fast, and the near future may witness such wonders as a laptop that never gets plugged in, house paint that harvests the sun’s energy, or even pacemakers powered by the human heartbeat.

As climate change awareness grows and installation costs fall, renewable energy is no longer just for idealists and techies.  The average household photovoltaic (solar) system now pays for itself in about 5 years, and keeps on giving.  But for many of us, generating our own power still feels like a leap of faith.  If you’re contemplating the jump, talk with locals who’ve tried it, consider your site’s exposure.

Where does your electricity come from?

From the outlet, of course!  It’s easy to move through our days flipping switches, plugging in chargers, and opening fridges without stopping to wonder how all this seemingly endless power is generated.  It’s worth taking a moment to find out. If you don’t like the answer, you may be ready to contribute some clean energy of your own.

In many cases, our nights are illuminated by toxic combustion or hazardous fission.  Twenty states, mostly southeastern and midwestern, produce the bulk of their electricity with coal-fired plants.  Rhode Island, Nevada, Florida, Massachusetts, and Alaska use natural gas, often extracted through “fracking”, for over 50% of their power.  Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Illinois, get over half their power from nuclear reactors.  All of these processes endanger our ecosystems and our long-term survival as a species.  If you live in one of these states, you can reduce demand for these deadly fuels by contributing clean power to local systems.

The Northwestern states, on the other hand (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) make over 85% of their electricity from renewable hydroelectric sources.  In addition, the solar prospects of these states are lower, due to latitude and frequent cloud cover.  In response, northwest residents may choose to instead invest in renewable technology ventures, or simply focus on greener lifestyle modifications. Sadly, the manufacture of solar panels has its own hefty carbon footprint.  It’s important to maximize each panel’s energy generating potential in order to come out “ahead” on the carbon emissions balance sheet.

Should I consider a wind turbine or micro hydro?

Solar panels require almost no maintenance after installation, but harnessing the power of wind or water requires more technical finesse and commitment.  Solar panels have no moving parts, unlike the turbines at the heart of wind and micro hydro systems, which in our experience require frequent troubleshooting.  These systems can be rewarding for an avid off-grid homesteader, but are rarely practical or even possible in settled areas.  Many residential zoning codes or homeowner associations explicitly prohibit such equipment due to noise or aesthetic concerns.  If you live rurally and are mechanically inclined, you might want to learn more about the advantages of wind turbines.  Micro hydro systems require access to a reliable volume of flowing water, and again, make sense only for off-grid residents whose overall power needs are low.

What about preparedness?

Will an alternative energy system make me self-sufficient when the grid goes down?  A conventional “grid tie” photovoltaic system will not help during a power outage.  The technology that converts the current into usable A/C voltage is dependent on external power.  An independent system that will keep going when disconnected from the outside world requires more expensive equipment, as well as batteries which store the sun’s power for use after dark.  Batteries need regular maintenance, and for the average homeowner their upkeep and shorter lifespan (usually four to ten years) outweigh benefits during occasional blackouts.

The equation may change with time.  Some analysts believe that the dropping costs of both solar panels and batteries will soon make living “off grid” an economic advantage as well as a lifestyle decision.  By 2020, residents of California or New York may be able to produce and store their own electricity more cheaply than they can buy it from a local utility.  By 2030, some speculate most US homeowners could do so.  But for now, tying into the grid makes more sense, and provides more flexibility.

How much will it cost?

Fortunately, solar panels have never been cheaper. Installation and related equipment have also become more affordable as home systems have gained popularity. Fully installed, your solar array could be as low as $3/watt, which can add up to $12,000 for an average 4-kilowatt system.  That may be one of the safest investments you could make.  Over 20 years, the average family could save $20,000 — and considerably more in the sunniest climates.

Most well-made panels are guaranteed to perform well — retaining at least 80% of their original capacity after 25 years. Beyond that, there’s a reasonable guess that many solar panels will still be generating useful amounts of power at 50 years and beyond, although technologies may change in ways we cannot yet imagine.  Don’t forget that most states offer tax credits or rebates for qualifying renewable energy purchases.  Some companies will even install leased solar panels with no upfront costs.

Taking it one step at a time

Maybe you’re not in a position to jump on the solar wagon tomorrow and start selling electricity back to the grid.  Some of us aren’t homeowners, live in high-rises, have poor solar exposure, or lack disposable income.  In many cases, you can reduce your load on power plants even more by lowering your energy usage.  Choose efficient appliances, change your lightbulbs, and incorporate some basic conservation habits; your electrical bill will show the difference.  Simply using a clothesline instead of your electric dryer can reduce your home’s energy consumption by 6%.  Purchasing Renewable Energy Credits for your home or business is another way to vote with your wallet.

Green power has hit the mainstream.  In response to consumer popularity, some shoppers can now buy solar panels at a local “big box” chain.  Deliberations for your hypothetical rooftop solar panels will vary: is your house in the sunny suburbs of Phoenix, or on the north slope of a wooded mountain in Oregon?  What are your goals and your budget?  But none of us can afford to look the other way from the devastation non-renewable power generation is wreaking in our names.