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Wednesday, 03 December 2008 13:18

Choices in home energy systems

Written by 

By Avram Friedman • Executive Director, Canary Coalition

Getting “off the grid” is more and more appealing to many of us as the cost of energy goes up and our awareness about the health and environmental impacts of coal and nuclear power grows. Expense is the major obstacle to taking your home off the grid, though it always makes economic sense in the long run.

Going 100 percent solar wind, geothermal or micro-hydro can seem impossible when considering the up-front costs of these systems. However, by approaching the problem in reasonable stages, establishing priorities, and figuring costs, you can take a simplified approach to being more energy-independent — the only personal investment you’ll make with a guaranteed payback.

Most often in residential applications, the first step is to install solar water heaters. Electric or gas water heaters account for up to 60 percent of residential energy use in the Southeast — installing a solar water heater can reduce your energy bill by nearly $25 per month. A handy person can build an adequate, functional solar water heater for a few hundred dollars, or one can purchase a pre-manufactured system for a little more. I recommend the “batch-type” heaters for simplicity and reliability; ground mounting, rather than roof mounting, is preferable if possible. For good instructions on how to build or install a solar hot water heater, visit

The next priority might be to provide electrical power for water pumping, refrigeration, lighting, computers, or sound system. Decide what your priorities are and what’s most important to you and begin to build a modular generating system that can be expanded at your pace. You can use solar, micro-hydro, or wind, depending on the availability of your resources. For micro-hydro, you’ll need a year-round creek on your property within a few hundred feet of your house. Wind is generally feasible only at elevations above 3,000 feet with a 500-foot radius unobstructed by tall trees or buildings.

The solar option, however, is almost universally available. While photovoltaic systems can be expensive, the cost can be minimized by investing in highly efficient electrical appliances like slow pumps for your well, LED lighting, solid-state refrigeration, or a laptop computer. This reduces the size and cost of your solar array and battery storage systems. Start with one 12-volt circuit in your house, and add on to the system as your budget allows. You can even check online for surplus or used solar electric panels — there are many available to save you money.

Lastly, in many states, homeowners can take advantage of net-metering laws that allow easy use of utility-company energy as a back-up for home-based systems. This removes the need for battery storage and makes it easier to become energy-independent. You can let your legislators know of your interest in home-based renewable energy systems and advocate to them for a more inclusive net-metering law in North Carolina.

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