Are we better off trying to “go green” via state, regional and national power grids, or on a home-by-home basis through rooftop solar panels, home wind turbines or geo-thermal heat pumps? A recent story in the San Bernadino County Sun pointed out the mixed messages from government agencies on renewable resources. On one hand, the state has provided more than a 50 percent discount to Oak Hill resident Gus Sansone who installed his own wind turbine power system. At 80 feet in height, the high-tech windmill has met all of the Sansone’s power needs for the past eight plus years.
The effectiveness of the wind turbine can be increased by raising the height of the support structure, but, according to the Sun, “at a time when the state is encouraging consumers and municipalities to … meet its goal of having 33 percent renewable energy by 2020, the county recently imposed tighter regulations on wind energy systems” by limiting windmill heights to 80 feet for most installations. At the time, Sansone had been planning to “grow” his wind turbine investment to around 100 feet.
County commissioners are mum about the reasons for their decision, but that’s not so for Joe Guasti, owner of the construction company that put in Sansone’s wind turbine and has also installed dozens of similar devices in nearby communities. "Instead of improving and moving forward, we're moving backward," he said.
According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), a home-scaled wind energy system is generally less expensive than its solar-powered counterpart. With few moving parts, wind turbines don't require much maintenance and operate practically automatically, while lowering a home’s electric bill by 50 to 90 percent.
And wind power is not the only low-cost, household-based renewable possibility. If you’re willing to bear the $10-$30,000 cost of digging deep enough to find a geo-thermal supply on your property, then a geo-thermal heat pump might be right up your alley. Once installed, it’s also a cheaper alternative than either solar or wind power, with the promise of breaking even in only two years.
And if you have some fast-running water on your property, you might just be able to harness it with your own small-scale hydro-electric plant, called a microhydro system. Although arguably the most cost-effective way to generate renewable energy, microhydro requires very specific conditions: at least 2 gallons per minute of flowing water, an active stream or river on your property, and a decent amount of drop.
In fact, all of the renewable energy options for the home have distinct requirements – plenty of wind, direct sunlight, fast moving water or a geo-thermal source under your property – that may not be available to the average homeowner. And if you remove the government incentives for these green energy approaches, then the costs are likely to be prohibitive.
So, the idea of adding “a windmill in every backyard” to the great American promise of “a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot” still seems like a distant dream. Staying on the grid may end up being the alternative of choice for many years to come.