Do you ever watch the sun hitting your house, or the feel the wind rushing at your windows, and wonder just how hard it would be to harness all that energy?
The timing has never been better for average consumers to start using alternative energy in their own homes. The technology is better than ever: More and more contractors specialize in installing green energy generators in homes and state and federal money will often help you pay for it — the key is to find out what type of green energy is right for you.
"When you look at alternative energy choices for a home, the choice has a lot to do with geography, where in the country you are," said P.J. Stafford, co-founder of the eco-consulting firm Green Irene. "Your cost per kilowatt you generate is going to vary significantly from state to state." For example, solar power in Minneapolis may not be a good choice, but in Arizona it's a no-brainer.
Since sorting through the options can be confusing, many consumers hire consultants to visit their homes and offer customized advice. Green Irene, for example, has 150 consultants in 37 states who help customers complete "Green Home Makeovers" to save money and energy.
Since you might not be quite ready to call in a professional, here are some basics for getting the ball rolling.
- Greening the Grid
"The first step is, people should opt for green power from their existing utility," Stafford recommended. For an added price, you can often choose to buy green energy over conventionally-derived energy from your electricity utility company. In general, this option costs a couple cents more per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity you buy.
The average U.S. monthly household uses 938 kWh per month, so if the household opted to replace 100 percent of its energy with green energy, at a 2 cents-per-kWh premium, its monthly electricity bill would cost about $20 more.
But since you usually pay a flat rate for, say, wind power, and the price of oil and coal power can fluctuate throughout the year, consumers may end up saving money if conventional energy prices rise. And you'll be contributing to the solution of greening the grid.
- Do it Yourself
Another option is to install the actual generating equipment on your property to create green energy, rather than simply buy it. Building a wind turbine in your yard or installing solar panels on your roof requires a larger investment to begin with, but can end up saving more money in the long run, since you'll no longer have to purchase as much energy from utilities.
Plus, many states offer tax incentives, rebates and subsidies to encourage consumers to install alternative energy technology. The rates vary largely from state-to-state, and from energy technology to energy technology. For example, sunnier states often provide greater rebates for solar panels than cloudier states where the technology is less useful.
In many areas of the U.S., solar power is the most practical option. Installing an average 5 kW solar panel system in New York, for example, might total about $60,000. However, the state offers such generous rebates and tax credits, that the job will actually cost only about $11,000.
"There's no better deal right now in the country," said Robert Covello, a certified solar panel installer for Mercury Solar Systems of New Rochelle, NY. "If you look at the numbers, the payback is like five years. It's like stealing."
Since the entire system pays for itself in as little as five years, it sounds surprising that most residents of New York haven't installed solar panels yet. "Why are people not doing it? Because they don't know, that's part of the problem," Covello said. However, the news of the deal is spreading. Covello's business has been doubling ever year recently. "It's the only business where people call me up and say, ‘Thank you,' because three months later they are getting virtually no electric bill."
Wind power is also a great option for many homes.
"Our most active markets are typically on the coasts," said Scott Merrick of the Bergey WindPower company, based in Norman, Okla., which installs small wind turbines for homes and businesses around the country. "There you have incredibly high utility rates, good wind resources and large subsidies." In situations like these, a typical 10 kW wind turbine system, that costs between $55,000 to $67,000 to install, will usually pay for itself in six to eight years.
Surprisingly, wind power isn't as popular in places like Oklahoma, even though the Plain States get tons of wind. That's because electricity prices are so low anyway, most people aren't motivated to switch over to green energy. In areas where energy is cheaper, the same 10 kW wind system can take as much as 12 years to pay back its cost.
Those planning to install wind power generators also must contend with zoning laws and neighbors that don't want the eyesore of a turbine "souring" their view. "We typically recommend people have about an acre of space," Merrick said.
Geothermal energy, or energy generated from the heat stored in the ground, is another up-and-coming alternative energy source. To harness this energy, consumers can install a heat pump in their yards to transfer heat from the ground to the house in the winter time, and divert heat from the house to the ground during the summer. It can also be used to heat water. The systems start at around $15,000, and can usually pay for themselves after four to six years.
"Once you install the unit, it's going to save about 40 to 60 percent on your monthly heating and cooling bill," said Bridgette Oliver, marketing communications manager for ClimateMaster, a manufacturer of geothermal heat pumps. "It's using energy from the Earth that's already there, that's free."
Unlike solar and wind energy, Oliver said geothermal energy works about equally well all over the country. "You just have to have dirt," she said.
- Cutting Down on Energy
Ultimately, installing alternative energy generators in your home, or buying green power from your utility can do a lot of good, and even save you money in the long-term. But just as important, experts say, is reducing your energy usage in the first place. This makes it easier to meet your energy needs with alternative sources, and is the easiest way to go green right now.
"The best thing you can do today is not put in solar panels, but do some things to reduce the electric and gas usage in your home," said Green Irene's Stafford. "The best energy [people] can generate is saving the 30 to 40 percent of energy they're wasting in their own house right now." Insulating your house, using compact fluorescent light bulbs and switching off appliances and electrical outlets that aren't in use is a great place to start.