Green is definitely in. The Toyota Prius is the new “it” car. Organic clothes have become as chic as Armani suits. And natural foods stores are the hot place to grab groceries. While many of us are making simple, everyday lifestyle changes to help better our bodies and our environment, we yearn to do more: We want to make a more positive environmental impact with our purchases.
With this desire in mind, Delicious Living explored alternative-energy technologies for today’s consumers. Also known as renewable energy, the concept of alternative energy may seem futuristic to some. But we discovered that many of the available options are contemporary, useful, and affordable for most concerned consumers. Welcome to the greening of the 21st century.
If you’ve ever flown a kite, gone sailing, or even watched leaves swish off your trees, then you’re familiar with wind power. Windmills have been used since at least 200 b.c. to grind grain and pump water. Today, more efficient wind turbines can be found throughout the world, sometimes en masse on wind “farms”—and all for producing electricity.
Still, wind power accounts for less than 1 percent of the electricity generated in the United States. Why? Some blame high initial construction costs for wind farms. However, this doesn’t seem to be an obstacle in Europe, which generates more than three-fourths of the world’s wind power, thanks partly to stricter air-quality standards and emissions controls. The American Wind Energy Association does report that utility-scale wind power, which is contributed to energy grids for mass consumption, is now expanding at an average annual rate of 20 percent.
As wind technology improves—and turbines get taller, quieter, more aesthetically pleasing, and friendlier to migratory animals—more people are installing home wind turbines, especially in rural areas, says Patricia Plympton, senior project leader at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.
And when homeowners use wind along with solar, the systems provide mutual insurance for times when either the sun or wind is not cooperating, says Scott Sklar, president of the Stella Group, a Washington, D.C.-based marketing and policy firm that aims to advance renewable technologies. Then the sky really is the limit for all household energy needs.
Any kayaker, surfer, or whitewater rafter will happily sing the praises of the massive energy potential of moving water. The Greeks began harnessing hydropower more than 2,000 years ago for turning waterwheels to grind wheat for flour. By 1907, hydropower provided 15 percent of U.S. electricity generation. Today, the DOE tracks more than 180 federal projects as well as 2,000-plus hydropower projects regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
About one-fifth of the world’s electricity is generated from water power, according to the National Hydropower Association, and it doesn’t all come from big dams. For consumers, there are small and micro-hydropower systems that, according to Sklar, have minimal impact on local stream environments. “Free-flow microhydropower units range from 1 kilowatt (basically a paddle wheel in a nearby stream) to more sophisticated 25-kilowatt units, and are very reliable and safe,” he says. To build a small hydropower system for your home, you’ll need access to moving and falling water, which you can find in mountainous or hilly regions. After consulting your state’s energy office about permits, you should determine how much energy you must produce to make your investment worthwhile. You’ll need to measure the quantity of water flowing in the area, how far water falls in certain stream sections, and how much power your system can generate.
Although hydropower options are clearly limited by geography and cost-effectiveness, existing technology is reliable and durable. And in the big picture, evolving wave and tidal energy technology may well convert more of that watery 70 percent of the Earth’s surface into an additional energy reserve.
Open your desk drawer and you’ll probably run across some solar electric technology. The first solar-powered calculators hit store shelves around 1977. Similar technology now powers entire households—approximately 100,000 of them in the United States today, according to Sklar.
These homes use large, rooftop photovoltaic (P/V) solar panels, which collect and convert sunlight into power that can then be stored in large batteries—or directed toward the neighborhood’s shared energy grid.
Installation of P/V panels can be expensive. But homebuyers can calculate the panels’ extra cost into their mortgage, and save on electricity bills thereafter. It also pays to look for discounts, rebates, and subsidies offered by state-funded solar-energy incentive programs, which are offered in California, New York, Vermont, and elsewhere. Some states, including Maryland, also offer tax credits to consumers who pay somewhat higher rates to use solar energy generated by their local utility companies.
If you’ve ever seen Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park, you’ve witnessed geothermal energy firsthand. Thousands of years ago, Paleo Indians settled near hot springs for the warmth provided by water heated in the outermost six miles of the Earth’s crust. These days, power plants using geothermal energy provide more than 44 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year worldwide. And that number is growing, reports the DOE.
In the United States, according to the Geothermal Resources Council in Davis, California, consumers use about 2,200 megawatts of geothermal electricity annually, which is equivalent to using electricity from four large nuclear power facilities. About 500,000 geothermal heat pumps help heat and cool residential, commercial, and government buildings, according to the DOE’s office of geothermal technologies. Nearly 600 schools in the nation depend solely on geothermal heat pumps for their climate-control needs.
Sturdy geothermal heat pumps can cool a house in the summer and heat it in the winter because of the relatively constant temperature of the surrounding earth. Through vertical boreholes ranging from 100 to 400 feet deep, pumps move heat from the earth up into a house in winter, and back down into the earth in summer. Homebuyers can incorporate the extra cost of a geothermal system into an energy-efficiency mortgage.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that geothermal pumps can save a typical homeowner 30 percent to 70 percent in heating bills and 20 percent to 50 percent in cooling costs, totaling hundreds of dollars annually. For a 1,500-square-foot home, costs for heating and cooling air and heating water with geothermal pumps may be as low as $1 a day. That means payback time for geothermal heat pumps can be as short as two years, according to the DOE.
Depending on where you live, you may have the option of purchasing geothermal energy electricity from your local utility company. And why not? After all, “geothermal energy comes closer to zero pollution than any other source,” says Ted Clutter, executive director of the Geothermal Resources Council. Zero pollution sounds perfect!