• The zero-grid house (see link) in New England is an idea whose time is coming. The Jetsons don’t own the future any more, and the engineers, bless them, have toiled mostly without our thanks to bring energy and construction technology to the point of considering a house that stays warm and cool, runs its machines and lights its interior using energy generated on the site. Such houses already exist, albeit as pricey prototypes, and not just in Arizona.
  • Your decisions regarding the purchase or endorsement of renewable energy systems in your home should be driven by an unembarrassed mix of economic, political and personal motives. No single factor makes renewables a clear choice for everyone. Finally, you’ll move toward renewable energy not just because the dollars lead you there; you’ll decide to install panels, build a backup power source, install a wood stove (stop the howling from the true believers) or dig up your backyard and bury geothermal tubes because of what you believe politically and culturally. And the financial calculation will  probably  be a rational check that you’re not being impulsive or wasteful.
  • If you’ve researched, or are researching, photovoltaic cells as a system for your home, follow the links and find that Connecticut Clean Energy Fund and Connecticut Light and Power (our private utility) provide handsome tax incentives and downstream energy credits for customers with photovoltaic systems. Approved contractors install the panels, connect them through the inverter and metering equipment to the street power (call it the Grid), and the utility buys your solar-generated power back from you at retail rates. I have no reason to doubt the official estimates of the payback curve of the systems. I merely call to your attention that independent authorities also provide statistics about the economics of CL&P’s incentives vs. the installed costs of the system. Consult more than one source for that data, and expect your results to vary.
  • Consider also that the CL&P incentive program is engineered to do one thing: to put power back into the grid during sunlight hours, the time of peak usage and load for the utility. And that separate arrangements must be made if you hope to use photovoltaics to feed a backup system of batteries and inverter to supply power after sundown or during an outage. Consult your local approved contractors for the details.
  • Similarly, solar hot water systems are supported by tax incentives, and the estimated output of the systems as well as their payback rates will vary. You can’t expect a contractor or an inspector to offer precise performance data for solar equipment: site variation is too broad a factor, and site factors include: angle of tilt, compass orientation, local wind speed, cloud vs. sun calculations for latitude and local climate, performance factors for panels and heat exchangers, and tree shading, to name just a few.
  • You may never know at what point your solar energy equipment actually pays you back for your original investment minus tax incentives plus maintenance costs. You must do your best research and make a decision based on imprecise numbers and factors. The only thing you’ll be certain of is this: you will pay for the system up front. There are no partners joining you in the risk of getting a return on your investment. The contractor will get paid and move on to the next project, the Clean Energy Fund will pay you a partial credit on the power you return to the grid, and CL&P will pay you as you go for your output as well. But in the short run, you will be the investor, the entrepreneur.
  • The concept of “carbon footprint” is familiar enough these days, but the term is linked to a definition here for clarity. Solar panels, both photovoltaic (PV) and hot water (hydronic) are viewed as having a small or reasonable carbon footprint among renewable sources. Geothermal heat pumps, employing buried tubes and sometimes circulating water from wells on your property to act as heat exchanger for an otherwise conventional heat pump heating/cooling system, are also considered to have a small carbon footprint. Passive solar architecture, the placement of south-facing windows and skylights to permit solar radiation to warm a house’s interior, has possibly the smallest carbon footprint of any recognized renewable strategy.
  • But the concept of carbon footprint is not to be confused with the concept of renewable energy, or with conservation technology. As we stated above, the burning of wood, especially in New England, easily qualifies as renewable technology, crude and simple as the equipment may be. The burning of waste oil, biofuels, household trash, newspapers and other combustibles must be allowed as renewable-source energy. My children grew up in a house heated only by wood until they were nearly in their teens. You can ask them how they felt about it. Their parents spent most autumn weekends laying by a store of wood, and they went to school most mornings with a tiny whiff of woodsmoke on their clothes. At the time (early 80s) the idea of global warming was an unclassified secret, discussed only by a small community of environmental activists and scientists. The consensus of environmental experts today is that wood is too expensive a source of energy in terms of environmental impact to be considered by responsible consumers. Wood is not featured in most forward-looking renewable energy discussions.
  • I bring the topic of renewable combustibles up because conscience demands it. If there was ever a renewable source that featured a rapid payback curve, readily available fuel supply, and attractively low initial investment, wood and paper is that source. The issue of environmental impact greatly complicates, though, your decision to pursue these simple, cheap options for home heating energy. If you can walk past everything Al Gore has taught us in the last ten years and consider only the short-term dollar equation, wood heat looks very good. I can’t ignore the evidence, personally, so I pursue other strategies for heating my home. But I do keep two cords of wood in the barn and an old woodstove in mothballs out there, in case a crisis arises and extreme measures are warranted.

links to more info...

helios at home (blog)

CT incentives

CT clean energy fund


renewable energy world

sun volt solar blog

US EPA on Residential Wood Combustion

NY Times on woodstoves