Alternative energy is one that is derived from nontraditional sources. Hydroelectric, solar, and wind energy are all forms of alternative energy that do not use up natural resources, are environmentally sound, and are renewable.
Through the ages, man has been seeking out alternative energy sources. Wood was an initial energy source from the early days of man. Coal was introduced as a way to conserve the dwindling forests, while petroleum was introduced as a way to reduce dependence on costly and hard to find whale oil.
As time passed, more ideas have been generated to produce more favorable and enduring energy sources. With worldwide interest in reducing our planet’s carbon footprint, alternative energy sources that can reduce our reliance upon declining stores of fossil fuels while reducing our carbon output, have been found.
Solar energy is a way to generate power from the sun. Wind energy, or use of wind turbines, harnesses power from the wind. Geothermal energy is a way to use the deep Earth’s natural heat to produce electric energy. Bio-fuels, hydrogen, and nuclear power are also forms of alternative energy sources, but are under intense scrutiny due to concerns over their safety.
When an energy source is labeled as “renewable”, it means that this type of energy can be replenished naturally. Wood is still the number one renewable energy and actually emits the same amount of carbon whether burned or allowed to degrade on its own.
Solar energy is a cheap and green way to produce electricity from sunlight. Solar panels work to produce electricity by capturing the sun’s rays by use of photovoltaic (PV) cells. These cells then convert the sunlight into electricity that can be used to power lights and appliances. While PV cells work better when there is direct sunlight, even cloudy days can generate some power as well.
Solar panels are made up of PV cells and can be attached to your home’s roof or walls. The photovoltaic cells are made up of at least one and sometimes two layers of a semiconducting material. The material is usually silicon. When the sun hits a PV cell there is an electric field produced across the cell’s layers.
Photovoltaic cells come in a wide range of styles and colors. You can choose PV solar panels that look like normal roof tiles or panels that are transparent for use on glass or on top of a conservatory. Each PV cell is rated on strength based upon the amount of energy the cell can produce in full sunlight and is measured in kilowatt peak, or kWp.
Using solar electricity is beneficial in many ways. Since solar power is green and renewable, there is no harmful CO2 emission. In addition, PV solar panels will cut your electricity bills by around 40%, and will reduce your household’s carbon footprint. You can even sell excess energy that your solar panels produce or store the extra energy in batteries for use on days that are a bit more cloudy, and when you need it.
Solar panels are a great addition to your home as long as you have considered factors, such as how much sunlight your home receives each day. If your house has a roof or wall that faces south or 90 degrees within south and receives a great deal of sunlight each day, then solar panels are a good idea.
The roof must be strong enough to hold the solar panels. If you are not sure, ask a building expert or solar panel installer. Do not forget to get permission from your local housing authority before commencing work on your solar panel project, and keep in mind it is better to hire a crew to install the solar panels if you are not sure of your installation abilities. Solar panels are quite costly and it is better to have them installed properly than to risk an accident.
Wind turbines are devices, which convert kinetic energy into mechanical energy. A wind turbine effectively harnesses the wind and turns it into electricity. Small, household sized turbines are called micro-wind or small-wind turbines and can help to power lights and other appliances found in your home.
Large blades are the defining characteristic of wind turbines. These blades are blown by the wind and rotate around, driving the turbine, which produces the electricity. The windiest conditions produce the greatest amount of energy.
Household wind turbines are available as either a freestanding structure that is placed in the most exposed position on the land, or are mounted on the roof of the home. The freestanding wind turbines are roughly twice the size of the roof-mounted variety.
There are many benefits of using wind energy. It can reduce your energy costs by up to 40% depending upon your wind production. Any excess energy your wind turbine creates can be stored in batteries for future needs or in some cases, sold to electric companies.
Wind turbines are not for every home, as obstacles such as large trees, hills, and buildings can interfere with the amount of wind your turbine receives. If your home is located in a windy area, at least receiving 5m/s winds, and is not obstructed from direct wind, turbine electricity production might be for you.
In order to make the most of wind energy it is wise to invest in the most energy efficient household appliances and to keep your batteries charged with excess electricity. There are many more energy saving tips, which range from hanging your laundry out to dry, to not using appliances during peak times.
Maintenance on a wind turbine system is fairly simple, as checks are only needed to be done once every two or three years. Wind turbines have an overall life expectancy of about 20 years and battery life can range from 6 to 10 years.
Geothermal heat pumps are also known as ground source heat pumps and work by using the Earth as a heat source in the winter and a heat sink in the summer. Because the Earth stays at a relatively constant temperature beneath the surface, heat pumps take advantage of this to provide energy to the home.
Ground source heat pumps require loops of pipes to be buried in the ground around or under your home. The pipes, called ground loops are filled with water and antifreeze and are then circulated through the ground. The heat from the ground is absorbed into the pipe fluid, and then is pumped into the heat pump via a heat exchanger. The heat pump takes the heat from the fluid loops for use in heating the house and the fluid now passes through and back into the ground to absorb more heat from the ground.
In order to absorb the most heat from the ground, the loops need to be long. The length of a ground source heat pump’s loops will depend entirely upon the space in which the loops can be placed, as ground loops are coiled into horizontal trenches that are dug about two meters deep. Vertical installation can be done to a depth of 100 meters in areas of limited space.
Geothermal heat pumps do require some electricity to run, but can overall cut your fuel bills and reduce your home’s carbon emissions. Heat pumps also need to run constantly in order to be efficient, as they produce a lower temperature heat and will likely never feel hot to the touch, as a normal radiator will.
In order to determine whether a geothermal heat pump is right for your household, it is important to consider a few factors. As even smaller yards can accommodate a vertical installation of ground loops, it is at least important to be able to have room for the digging equipment. In addition, the more insulation your home has, the better, as insulation and draft proofing your home will save you money and allow your heat pump to run more efficiently.
Heat pumps are not recommended as a replacement for gas heaters, but work well as a replacement for electric or coal systems. Contact your local housing authority to determine the need for permits before installing a heat pump and as always, hire a qualified construction contractor to assist you in planning your project to install any of these alternative energy products.
Levchik (Leo) is a renewable energy activist from Boston, MA, and has been involved with alternative energy and green construction since 2004.
In 2009, Leo and his green roofing company (CoolFlatRoof.com) sponsored Boston's Solar Decathlon Team, providing materials and installation labor to install a cool white roof on the top of Curio home (Joint effort by Tufts University and Boston Architecture College) - more info about the project here.
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