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October 16, 2008

Micro Power Stations – You Too Can Be a Utility Company

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My Personal Generator As noted in one of my recent blog posts, "The Quest for Energy Independence" (June 30, 2008), I get a sick feeling every month while opening my power bill which many of you probably share.  As most of you experience, the price of electricity has gone through the roof and there’s possibly no end in sight.  As fuel costs continue to surge, so does the price of a kilowatt-hour. We are so dependant on electricity, there’s no going back and who would want to... and we continue to blame the power companies for the rising costs and the fact that we are now large consumers of the stuff.  Like anything, it was so inexpensive, we used great deals of energy never thinking we’d run out.

In reality, the power company has nothing to do with my consumption - they didn’t knock on my door and say, "hey, like to try some kilowatt-hours man... you’ll really like it!"  They are simply the supplier of a required commodity that used to be a lot cheaper than it is today. They are also at the mercy of the raw material suppliers - coal, oil and natural gas prices have all soared recently so they have passed that burden on to us to maintain their profits as any business would do in their position.

Now, when I built my current home, I estimated the cost of all support systems including electricity... I even added an inflation rate which nicely aligned with my estimated cost of living increases as I looked into my crystal ball to predict the future.  When a monthly expense is only U.S. $10 and it doubles, triples or quadruples it might make you angry, but it will rarely stop you from drastically changing your lifestyle.  However, when that expense in 2001 was US$190 and 7 years later the same expense is US$700+, it drastically affects you’re the way you live and the way you view the future.

If I would have known that the cost of electrical power would rise to such extents in such as short timeframe, I would have made different choices during construction of our home.  For example, the house would have been constructed like a thermos bottle (at a much larger expense - initially).  HVAC equipment (heat pumps) accounts for the largest consumption of power only second to refrigeration and lighting - especially in hot climates such as Florida.

The cooling systems in our current home had the highest Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) at the time. This rating is defined as the total British Thermal Units (BTUs) per cooling season divided by the total electrical energy input in watt-hours.  Our home required three heat pump units. Two were 2.5 ton units and one was a 1 ton unit.  The combined requirement for the house by the contracted design at peak temperatures (in Florida) required 72,000 BTU/hour of cooling!

To keep the house cool, the systems run during peak months for 15 hours per day (1800 hours per season) which results in a power consumption of 10,800 kWh of energy!  At U.S. $0.16 per kWh, that is US$1728.00 per season (4 months) or over US$430 a month just to keep the house cool.  If you add in lighting, refrigerators and various pumps (e.g. irrigation, etc.) the cost skyrockets! Additionally, high energy users get hit with additional taxes from the power company. They don’t give you a discount for using more... they charge more per kilowatt-hour and the break-point is at the first 1000 kilowatt-hours which we quickly surpass during hot months.

To address the problem you can go back and improve insulation, plant shade trees, apply solar film to your windows, and more.  However, somewhere along the line there will be nothing to stop heat transfer - after all, most houses are not designed as Dewar bottles - not yet anyway. So you’ve done your part, but the cost of a kilowatt hour will continue to rise and until electrical energy is as accessible as dirt, there will be no end in sight.

So what can you do to battle the rising costs beyond conservation?  How about building your own power plant!  That’s right... you and your neighbors.  Technology can be a wonderful thing.  Today there’s micro wind turbines such as those made by Helix Wind, low cost Solar Photovoltaic panels such as those being pioneered by Nanosolar, and even moderate sized hydroelectric systems designed for large streams (some dam building required) like those from Canyon Industries for those who live in mountainous areas.

I was particularly excited about the small wind systems and imagined a corner of my neighborhood with dozens of these turbines generating power.  My thought would be for our Home Owners Association to purchase and install the turbines and sell the power back to the community at (hopefully) a much lower cost than the power company.  The other method would be to meter (via the local utility) what goes back into the grid and equally apply credits to all the homeowners!  These systems are virtually maintenance free and are designed for a 30 year lifespan. What’s even more interesting is the availability of tax credits or grants for installing alternative energy generation capability!

So if you’ve conserved as much as possible, think about generating your own electricity! If I didn’t have to drill 5 miles to find temperatures high enough to generate super heated steam, I might even consider a backyard geothermal plant, so low cost solar panels will probably be next.  Till next time...

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Chris Gammell

I like all of your ideas for local power generation but I think the next issue (after the rather high upfront cost) is finding newer ways to efficiently convert power back to AC for all our gadgets and AC motors or to find a new solution like a DC powered home (http://chrisgammell.com/2008/10/09/dc-powered-home/)

HeatPumpGuru

The geothermal heat pump, also known as the ground source heat pump, is a highly efficient renewable energy technology that is gaining wide acceptance for both residential and commercial buildings. Geothermal heat pumps are used for space heating and cooling, as well as water heating. Its great advantage is that it works by concentrating naturally existing heat, rather than by producing heat through combustion of fossil fuels.

Here is a link to a very complete site on all you need to know about Geothermal
Geothermal Heat Pump at Home

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