Home » Earth, Wind and Wire: Going Beyond Solar Panels

Earth, Wind and Wire: Going Beyond Solar Panels

Here’s a look at three technologies that California residents are using to cut their energy bills and turn their homes into clean, mini-power plants.

February 7, 2010

By CHIP JACOBS

Note to readers: the following story is a longer, slightly different version of the article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times and other outlets on February 5, 2010. To see that version, click here.

Not long ago, most Californians harvesting green energy at home had pretty much one way to turn: toward their eaves. Rooftop solar panels might’ve resembled giant aviator-sunglasses, with a typical setup costing as much as a luxury car, but they at least delivered power-bill savings without anxiety. Trying to capture rustling winds or subterranean heat or streamside hydro-electricity sounded as farfetched as it did impractical, and never found consumer traction. 

Well, chalk another one up for the green revolution.

Today, with more user-friendly technology on the market and meaty taxpayer-subsidies available to begin popularizing the concept, the era of limited choices is fading. Homeowners out to shrink their reliance on the local utility grid and live greener without opting for standard solar-cells can now do so, depending on where they reside and their tenacity to stick with it.

Experts believe it’s an idea worth bouncing around because of converging trends. As energy demands continue to tick upwards and governments crack down further on greenhouse gases, everyone – including consumers who previously shrugged off home-generation as a quixotic extravagance — will likely pay more for their electricity and natural gas.

New power plants are just prohibitively expensive to build. And no one knows when the next energy crisis will strike.

“Renewable energy produced at home shouldn’t just be for the granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing people,” said Angelina Galiteva, chairwoman of the non-profit World Council for Renewable Energy. “It should be for everyone.”

But will more than a hardy band of believers really commit to churning out kilowatts in their own backyards and communal grounds, when just one of 154 California single-family homeowners right now even run solar cells? Will the temptation to lock down energy costs, or the desire for more self sufficiency, catch on in the forward-looking West Coast as it has throughout Europe?

Check back in 2030 for concrete answers. For now, take a look what at some are already doing.

SMALL WIND

People driving along gusty interstates near such places as Palm Springs are accustomed to seeing commercial wind farms, where turbines as high as buildings spin lazily against a blue sky. These days, a modest but growing number of individuals are trying that technology inside their own fence-lines.

Roughly 10,500 small turbines were sold to homes, farms and businesses nationwide in 2008, according to the American Wind Energy Assoc. While the numbers aren’t in yet for 2009, demand remained strong in spite of the Great Recession, said Elizabeth Salerno, the association’s director of data and analysis. A survey of small-turbine manufacturers has projected a 30-fold increase in the U.S. market by 2013.

Locally, some of the growth is emanating from companies eager to contain their electricity tabs. In Palmdale, for instance, city officials have cleared the way for businesses to install wind turbines up to 60-fee-high to crank out their own clean power. Among them is Wal-Mart, which has a 17-turbine project planned for its Sam’s Club outlet in Palmdale.

Potential wise, though, the largest new pool of converts may be individuals such as Ernest Ramirez. He and his wife live in Oak Hills, an unincorporated, blustery section of western San Bernardino County dotted with spacious homes on multi-acre lots. They inherited their wind turbine when they bought their 3,250-square-foot property equipped with a pool and hot tub in 2003.

Ernest Ramirez can’t imagine life without out it now.

Perched on a slender tower about 80-feet high, the turbine has three, 10-foot-long blades that whip often enough to keep his power bills from Southern California Edison at about $100 a month, or roughly a quarter of what he calculates he’d fork out otherwise.
 
Gusts are so fierce in this part of the Cajon Pass that they have been known to snap trees and jackknife semi-trucks. But Ramirez welcomes a bad hair day. His 10-kilowatt device, which initially struck him as a hovering insect, not only is a money saver. It salves his environmental conscience.

“When I get out of my car and it’s blowing 35-mph and I have to stay inside the house, at least I know I’m saving money,” said Ramirez, a 46-year-old grant writer. “Wind is such a precious resource.”

Ramirez said he can count seven neighbors with their own wind turbines. When the blades on his turn fiercely, they produce a droan that Ramirez compares to a helicopter takeoff. All things considered, it’s a racket he’s happy to have.

Still, what works in windblown San Bernardino County won’t necessarily fit everywhere.

To make economic sense, a homeowner considering a turbine should live in an area where 10-mph winds are frequent, and be paying at least 10-cents a kilowatt hour for electricity, according to the wind association. Permitting is also a challenge in many communities; some neighbors consider the spinning contraptions as noisy and eyesores and even a threat to birds.

The technology certainly isn’t cheap, running about $3,000 to $6,000 per kilowatt installed or roughly $30,000 for an average system, experts say.

Sweeteners are being dangled to cushion some of that sticker shock. Homeowners can get a hefty rebate from the state of California – as much as $12,500 for a typical 5-kilowatt setup. They’re also eligible for a 30-percent Investment Tax Credit from the federal government.

GEOTHERMAL

Everybody knows that solar panels and wind turbines are rock stars of today’s renewable energy world. Fewer might suspect that one of the more intriguing contenders to reduce high utility bills cooks right under our feet.

Geothermal heat pumps, which have been around since World War II, consume 25-perent to 50-percent less electricity than conventional systems, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Their magic comes from the physics of heat-exchange and vapor compression.

First, pipes are buried, sometimes hundreds of feet down, and formed into a loop. During winter, a refrigerant-type fluid circulating through the loop grabs the heat and transfers it into a structure’s air-handler. When air conditioning is needed in the summer, the process operates much like your refrigerator: the pump draws heat from the home’s interior and dumps it back into the Earth.

Geothermal heat pumps are cousins of regular heat pumps, which draw in hot air from outside. The difference is that geothermal is more efficient because soil temperatures, even just a few feet underground, remain fairly stable year round. Geothermal systems also have few moving parts, so they’re quiet and durable. They can be adapted to provide a home’s hot water.

Dennis Bushnell, a NASA scientist who studies renewable fuels, said that geothermal heat pumps are relied on by a fair number of homeowners and others from Virginia to the Northeastern states. People who reside in warmer Sunbelt states could especially benefit from them, he said, because the loop works best when the temperature stays above 30-degrees.

The equipment is “not exotic at all,” said Langley. “You can go on the web and buy one today.”

Now for the bad news: upfront costs are painful, sometimes twice as much as conventional heating and cooling units.

If your wallet can withstand that initial blast, one satisfied customer says the quick payback time and minimal maintenance expenses make it worthwhile.

California’s electricity crisis motivated John Sergneri to install a geothermal heat pump on his 1,280-foot tract-style home in Petaluma. It cost $40,000, approximately $15,000 more than a traditional grid-dependent system. Still, it has slashed his utility bills dramatically.

Sergneri, an information technologist, is currently renting the house while he works in Switzerland. When he returns stateside, he said he plans to install solar panels to further trim his power costs, because the ground pump and associated machinery, like many renewable systems, requires some electricity to operate.

It’s all part of what he terms a low-cost, eco-friendly “retirement plan.” Sergneri, 58, jokes it will yield a better return than his tattered 401-K.

“My goal is to be as independent as possible,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of getting as far from the grid as possible.”

Though California isn’t offering rebates for ground heat pumps, a 30-percent federal tax credit is available.

SOLAR HOT WATER

California leads the nation in rooftop solar panels despite the fact that only about 50,000 single-family homes out of an estimated 7.7-million statewide have deployed them. (In the city of Los Angeles, a measly 1,627 homes have solar hookups with the Department of Water and Power.)

A simpler, less expensive path to convert sunrays to electricity is just beginning to catch on with solar water heaters. Officials hope two sets of incentives will bring them out of obscurity.

Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a $350-million rebate program to coax homeowners to replace their old energy-sucking units with more efficient solar-fired systems. Residential utility customers can get as much as $1,875 for swapping out their natural gas systems and $1,250 for ditching their electrically-heated tanks. The rebates phase out at the end of 2017 — or when the ratepayer-subsidized funds dry up. 

Buyers can also qualify for a 30-percent renewable energy tax credit for a new solar water heater from Uncle Sam.

All told, that could amount to as much as a 55-percent subsidy for equipment that normally costs between $6,000 and $8,000, contingent on a home’s size and energy usage.

Here’s the downside: to qualify for a state rebate, homeowners have to be customers of Southern California Edison, the Southern California Gas Co., Pacific Gas & Electric or San Diego Gas & Electric.

Heating water represents the third-largest energy expense for most households, according the Department of Energy. If California’s solar water heater initiative succeeds, 585-million therms of natural gas– the equivalent of 200,000 solar units – and 150-megawatts of electricity will have been replaced with clean power, the utilities commission says.

These systems are already popular in Israel, China, Spain and other countries. Beginning this year, Hawaii is mandating that all new homes be equipped with solar hot water heaters.

“Solar water heaters are the low hanging fruit,” said Katrina Phruksukarn, solar water heating program manager with the California Center for Sustainable Energy. “They may not be as cheap as putting in a high-efficiency light bulb, but they’re about as cost effective as you’re going to get.”

Technologies vary by manufacturer. One common arrangement involves linking a storage tank to a rooftop solar array. Heat collected by those panels is used to warm up copper tubes filled with water contained just beneath dark, heat absorbing collectors. Those collectors raise the temperature of the water, which from there is pumped down and stored in a well-insulated storage tank. Back-up gas or electrical heating kicks in if the temperature falls below a certain threshold.

Steve Glenn, whose company LivingHomes, designs eco-friendly modular dwellings, has a system in his home that employs solar tubes filled with special, low-boiling point oil. When sunrays strike the tubes, they produce steam that rises and transfers some of its heat to water, which is warmed and stored in an ordinary-looking 60-gallon tank. The water is then delivered to showers and sinks. Heat radiating from the system’s piping also keeps the floors toasty.

Glenn said the solar hot water heater, photovoltaic panels and other energy-miserly features in his Santa Montica home have reduced is electric bill to the cost of a nice lunch: about $15 to $20 a month.

“I don’t have to even think about it” Glenn, 45, said. “The hot water feels like hot water. I’m not aware its sun baked, and not natural gas baked.”

BIOMASS

Another home-based renewable is an update to 19th-century prairie life. Furnaces and stoves that burn wood pellets made from sawdust, bark and other industrial byproducts, as well as corn, dried cherry pits and other organic materials are now on the market. Unlike traditional cord wood, these fuels cough out relatively little ash, soot and other harmful emissions.

Depending on the house, the biomass burners can supplement or replace a structure’s conventional heating system.

Like many renewable energy concepts, though, they are not for fence sitters. A stove or furnace, which resembles a stand-alone, glass-enclosed fireplace, can run $5,000 or more with installation. The fuels themselves also aren’t necessarily cheaper than natural gas or oil heat. A typical system eats up to three tons of them yearly.

At Floyd S. Lee Fireplace & BBQ in Pasadena, they’re just starting to sell a small fireplace for $900 that burns a clear-liquid biofuel requiring no venting. Since the unit doesn’t generate bounds of heat, it’s mainly decorative, said salesman Tom Broderick. Actual pellet-burning fireplaces have promise, he added, once retail stores can more easily secure pellets from suppliers. 

“But they’re trying new things all the time,” he said. “Nobody is sticking with the old.”

As with ground heat pumps, there is no state rebate available for biofuels burners. There is a $1,500 Energy Star rebate that expires Dec. 31.

Coming down the pike is a household “bio-reactor” just being introduced in England, said NASA scientist Bushnell. It converts kitchen scraps, yard waste and sewage into electrical juice.

“All these (ideas) were possible ten years ago and are now more possible because of the pace of technologies,” said Bushnell, who works out of NASA’s Langley, VA. research-center. “Once people learn about the realities of the energy-price situation, they’ll know they have to consider adjusting how they live, including considering renewables.”

SIDEBAR STORY AND LINKS

Three years ago, the state rolled out its Go Solar California! program to dramatically boost adoption of solar power and fortify an industry devoted to it. The $3.3-billion, ratepayer-financed effort has a goal of adding 3,000 megawatts of grid-connected solar by 2016.

If that objective is met, it could spare California from having to build six new gas-fired power plants, which generate about 500-megawatts per year. The average home consumes about 10,000-kilowatts annually.

The Public Utilities Commission as part of this effort has earmarked $2.2-billlion program in rebates to encourage homeowners, businesses and non-profit agencies to install solar-photovoltaic roof panels and solar water heaters. They’re only available for customers of Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric and San Diego Gas and Electric.

So far, about 257 megawatts of new solar have come on line, the bulk of that in industry. If that doesn’t sound impressive, especially compared to Europe, it represents more than three times what was installed in the 1980s and 1990s combined. And despite the low-consumer usage, California accounts for about two-thirds of the nation’s entire installed-solar.

Officials are hoping that by the time the incentives are exhausted, generating power at home will be considered a cost-savings staple, not an extravagance. Until then, consumers’ bitterness from the 2000-2001 electricity crises and more recent recession may help forge a spirit of productive independence.

“You saw faith being lost,” said Ben Airth, who works with the Center for Sustainable Energy, a non-profit involved in California’s solar campaign. “America has been brought up on the idea of plugging into the grid through a utility and now people are seeing for themselves what they can do about producing their own electricity.”

Links to explore:

* To see federal and state-by-state incentives and rebates for home-based renewable energy, start with this database.

* For more about solar water heaters, visit this site.

* To get a taste of different home-based energy systems, check out this publication online.

* Lastly, if you assumed Los Angeles, with its Prius-driving, recycle-everything culture, is gobbling up solar faster than other regions, think again. Homeowners in San Diego and Santa Clara counties have installed more photovoltaic cells and solar water heaters than denizens of much-larger Los Angeles County. Here’s the proof.