With fossil fuels so abundant in Utah, the notion of using alternative sources of energy like wind and solar is laughed at and to some extent, even scorned. A typical attitude is, “If I can afford to drive a Suburban to work each day, why not? Gas is cheap, electricity is cheap and there is plenty of coal and natural gas.”
In my business travels to Europe and Asia, (where natural resources are costly, people live more conservatively, and accept responsibility for their personal impact on the environment), I have grown increasingly aware of how wasteful and polluting we Americans really are. The Earth simply cannot sustain such a fast pace of consumption of natural resources.
But what if we could capture energy from sunlight on our own property? Certainly this is possible considering that over 1.4 Gigawatt-hours/ year of solar energy falls on a typical 1/5th acre lot in North America (much more than enough to power most households). Solar energy is very plentiful. The difficulty comes in how to collect all this energy efficiently and cost effectively.
In 2010 I set a goal to power my home and vehicles entirely with solar energy. To figure out where I was starting and where I had to go, first I needed to do the math. As Lord Kelvin once said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”
Household Energy Use and Energy Efficiency
If you were to take the average, 2-car driving, American family household and sum up all the energy they consume in their home for heating, cooling, lighting, appliances and daily transportation, it would be on the order of about 73 Megawatt-hours of equivalent energy usage per year. To generate enough electricity from photovoltaic panels to satisfy this energy demand would require a 40kW – 50kW solar array that costs about $150,000. It would also be 5-15 times larger than the available solar-collecting area of a typical house roof.
Solar panels are fine and good but they are not going to get us anywhere if we don’t greatly improve the efficiency of our American lifestyle first.
While you can reduce energy usage by eliminating necessities, this action would be a violation of Rule #1: Save energy and money without sacrificing convenience and luxury.
All energy improvements should make good business sense too, or else they violate Rule #2: The improvement in energy efficiency must save enough energy over time to pay for the expense of making the improvement.
There is a caveat to Rule #2: Efficiency improvements don’t have to pay off, as long as they provide some desirable improvement in convenience and luxury; that in itself, justifies making the improvement.
I am convinced that virtually all of the world’s energy problems can be solved through increasing energy efficiency. There is no single efficiency improvement that I know of that can cut your energy bills by 90%. But there are several that will reduce them by 2%, 5% or 10%. If you implement 18 improvements that each save 5%, you will cut your energy bill by 90%.
After making efficiency improvements, usage goes down and alternative forms of energy become increasingly viable. Each person’s situation is different, but anyone can decrease their energy use.
Ideally, a home should be designed to take full advantage of the sun’s energy and built with ultra-energy efficiency in mind. Due to the housing market at the time, I ended up buying a 5000 sq-ft foreclosed home in Kaysville, UT, built in 2006, with lots of south-facing windows (ideal for harnessing the sun’s heat in the winter). It was fairly efficient by today’s standards yet had much room for improvement. My energy usage breakdown was as follows:
The numbers show I was off to a good start, especially considering the large size of my home and that the average American household uses 73 MWh per year. Still, a roof-mounted solar system on my house could produce only 15 MWh, a long way off from 63 MWh.
Instead of making one big change, I made many smaller ones. The easiest to make were several energy efficient improvements to my home. Some were as simple as covering south facing windows with curtains, and putting computers to sleep when not in use. I also changed to more efficient lighting, added central ceiling and attic fans, air sealed the house, and added insulation (see attachment below, "John's Energy Use and Savings"). In total, the changes I made added up to 13,300 kWh savings annually, lowering my use by 21%.
Two big changes I made were adding solar panels and converting a gas pickup truck into an all-electric vehicle (also see "Electric Vehicle" powerpoint presentation attached below. The solar panels were originally sized to cover 90% of my home’s electric needs. But now with the home improvements I’ve made so far, they cover 140%. The solar panels are actually producing more electricity than I need so the extra electricity now goes toward transportation instead of having to burn gasoline.
Currently, my family’s energy usage is about 24% solar powered (which covers our entire electric power usage). The last 76% of the energy for my home comes from natural gas for heating and gasoline for my wife’s minivan. But, with all the changes I made in efficiency and converting to electric where I can, my annual energy usage nearly halved to 37.8 MWh. That was easy, and I’m just getting started!
I now have plans to convert our second vehicle to electric and get a more efficient heating/cooling system among other improvements. It has taken 3 years, and cost about $20,000 dollars so far, but three years from now, I plan on being 100% fossil fuel free.
John Loveless is an electrical engineer in the microwave communications industry and is passionate about living without fossil fuel.
Photo credit, John by house: Standard-Examiner