Do It Yourself: Sustainable Energy For Your Home

While governments diddle around with new nuclear power and the climate crisis threatens to go over the top, you can install alternative energy yourself at home or in your business, probably for less cost than buying a hybrid car. And of course, for the householder as well as the power corporation, the “negawatt” of power saved through energy efficiency is the sweetest watt of all. 

With alternative technologies advancing at lightning speed, it is entirely possible that the necessary transformation of our energy systems will be underway long before the politicians begin to admit the need for action. Many power companies, including those in 35 states, are already starting to encourage net metering, where your power meter measures what you take from the gird, and also gives you credit for any surplus renewable energy you generate. Net metering avoids the need for massive battery storage systems and is an interesting way to encourage innovation and small scale technologies. 

In Ontario, net metering is allowed by regulation for power generated by wind, water, solar or agricultural biomass. BC Hydro began a net metering program in 2004 but so far only has a handful of participants. 

Get your feet wet with some solar toys 

Check out the scads of neat solar gadgets and gizmos now available, harnessing solar power to do a host of tiny tasks which no longer need a disposable battery or a large infrastructure – radios, battery chargers, calculators, sensor lights, solar fans and vents, not to mention a host of educational toys and construction kits. Getting solar up and running in the fringes of your life is a fun way to make yourself and your family comfortable with the technology. 

Go Solar 

When you’re ready to get more serious about solar, a solar hot water system, or solar assist on your hot water system, is the simplest and most obvious installation. The Solar Hot Water Project is a project of the BC Sustainable Energy Association (BCSEA) http:// www.bcsea.org/. Its goal is to increase awareness of the potential for solar hot water systems in BC by facilitating rebates and by providing information. Homeowners can obtain grants of up to $700 from Natural Resources Canada’s Renewable Energy Deployment Initiative (REDI) and a further rebate from the province of British Columbia. For these and more complicated installations, you probably want the help of a technical advisor and installer, such as your representative from Energy Alternatives. 

See www.energyalternatives.ca. BCSEA provides a list of registered solar contractors across the province.. 

One good place to start gathering information and support will be BCSEA’s Solar Summit scheduled for Vancouver and Victoria at the end of March. The Summit promises workshops, community training for solar installations, resources, and discussion of a “100,000 solar rooftops” campaign. 

Innovations in solar power are still advancing. A recent stunning South African innovation in solar panels promises to lower cost and raise efficiency to the point where houses can be independent of the electrical grid and run normal domestic appliances. The systems are expected to be available in South Africa within a year. Solar roofing companies are now advertising on the internet, but are not yet in full scale commercial swing. However, they can’t be far off. 

BCIT constructed a solar roof home for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation on its Burnaby campus. The research team developed a roof-integrated, grid-connected system that acts as a mini power plant for all the house’s lighting and power needs, other than heating. The system can feed electricity back to BC Hydro’s main power grid for use by others when the panels create more electricity than the home needs. 

Blow Hot and Cold 

You know wind power is finally coming into its own not only because it is generating its very own political controversies, but because now you can buy your own home or cottage wind battery charging system from Canadian Tire for under $1500. Can’t get much more accessible than that! Teamed up with the right batteries and inverter, the wind turbine will generate and store enough energy to run a refrigerator or other household items. 

Big wind farm projects with gigantic towers located in wilderness areas or marine sanctuaries continue to be controversial, and the utility of rooftop wind turbines has yet to be proved. But the technology is advancing and you can install a small wind turbine system for your roof or garden. The concept seems to have been embraced more in Europe than North America; in the UK rooftop wind turbines are routinely hooked into the household grid. 

Geothermal Heat Pump 

Recommended by BC Hydro, the geothermal system is a highly effi cient and economical year-round space conditioning system, although expensive to install. It can save over 50% on heating costs compared with electric resistance heating (e.g. electric furnace), and up to 30% on air conditioning costs, while providing clean, safe comfort year-round. 

Biomass 

All decaying matter produces methane, which is a very strong greenhouse gas. In nature, the amount of methane produced by composting was low enough for ecologies to handle it. Now, that methane is paired with all the other greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel civilization. Collecting and burning the methane, instead of burning more fossil fuel, is a double whammy activity to provide energy efficiency and fight climate change. Landfills have been one of the first targets for methane collection, but anaerobic composting of sewage, industrial sludges, and manures all make a lot of sense. 

The Negawatts 

Using existing technology, says Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, we in North America can save up to three fourths of the electricity used today. Much of that savings lies in industrial pumps and motors, which badly need some upgrading, sometimes as simple as better belts, but you can cash in on some negawatts around the house too. 

The Power Bar 

The simplest easiest actions you can take are to lower thermostats, use a “solar” clothesline instead of the drier, and, generally, turn off the power when you are not using it. Install your appliances on a power bar. Radios, TVs, all those instant “on” devices with the little green lights are draining electricity to do absolutely nothing but wait for your command. Give them, and the power grid, a break, and turn them off at a power bar when not in use. Similarly, turn off your printer, your monitor, and your computer when not in use. If your computer has a high speed connection, it’s better to turn it off when you’re not in the driver’s seat anyway – why expose it to assorted internet germs, intruders and viruses when you don’t need it to be awake? 

When buying a computer, if everything else is equal, get a laptop – they use 10% of the electricity of a desktop, and, as a bonus, you can have a pack-and-go offi ce at your convenience. Similarly, be sure to get Energy Star appliances and take BC Hydro up on its offer to give you $30 for your second fridge. For a washing machine, front end loaders save up to 40% on energy and water. As for the big flat panel TV screen, just do us all a favour, and – don’t! Every power company on the continent uses them as the excuse for needing more power capacity!

For a more complete list of energysaving actions, many of them free or very inexpensive, such as fl uorescent light bulbs, or newly available effi cient LED lights, check out the list at http://www.energyalternatives. ca/new_to_alternative_energy.htm 

Also see the Power Smart programs for residential and business use, usually information, programs, coupons and substantial rebates available from your power company. BC Hydro: http://www.bchydro.com/ powersmart/ Manitoba Hydro: http:// www.hydro.mb.ca/saving_with_ps/psmart_ overview.shtml The US Alliance to Save Energy has an information packed website for consumers and industry. You can also download a free Power Smart booklet: http://www.ase.org

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[From WS March/April 2006]

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