Renewable energy is becoming more attractive to the homeowner. Once seen as a gimmick for green activists, home power generation is increasingly entering the mainstream. With a low environmental impact and the potential to save significant sums, a solar panel or wind turbine is an increasingly common sight on urban roofs.
Generating your own renewable energy comes with challenges. There are four main ones you should have at the forefront of your mind as your project progresses.
How do you provide power when it isn’t windy or sunny?
The main challenge for renewable energy is the fact it isn’t always on. When the sun is out or the wind blows, power is generated. At night or on still days it isn’t.
If you’re concerned your lights might suddenly go out, don’t be. Renewable energy generators are usually connected to energy storage devices (typically batteries). When supply from the generator exceeds your demands, the extra energy is stored ready for when the wind drops or at night. Should that not be enough it’s usual to connect a property to the main grid so you can draw energy when needed.
How much renewable energy do you really need?
Generating the right amount of renewable energy is important. If you generate too little, you may find your appliances don’t work correctly or even not at all. While generating too much can be a source of income if you push it back into the grid, this will also mean you’ve spent more money than you need.
Calculating how much power you need is a complex process. The energy consumption in your house isn’t a constant, it varies depending on the time of day, the day of the week and across the year. When you make a roast dinner in the middle of winter you will use far more energy than preparing a salad in high summer. However, it is not only about generation. Storing and releasing energy later also comes into the equation and determines the size and type of storage device.
This is something you shouldn’t try yourself. Many people will assume they need to generate enough energy to power their homes at its highest demand all the time. A combination of generation and storage is usually sufficient, perhaps supported by occasionally drawing from the grid.
Can you install a solar panel or wind turbine?
What form of generation you’re allowed will depend on local planning laws and the size of your property. In urban areas by far the most popular form of generation is solar panels placed on sloping roofs. These will usually provide most of the power needed by a family house.
Planning laws can restrict what can be used. In some areas won’t permit solar panels on the front facing roofs of houses, which can deny access to sunny southern skies. Other planning restrictions may prohibit the use of wind turbines, or restrict the amount of roof that can be covered with panels. You should always talk to your local authority before you start placing orders.
How much does it cost?
Whether it is more or less cost efficient to use renewables is a complex issue. Removing yourself from the grid will save a lot of money each year in ongoing energy costs. Yet installing solar and wind power can have a high upfront cost that can wipe out these savings. The payback can be reduced further with the cost of maintaining the generators and eventually having to replace them.
Grants and low-cost loans can offset some or all of the installation costs. However, these have slowly been reducing in availability as the renewables have gone mainstream and product costs have fallen. In the UK, the Government has also axed the scheme that paid homes for their excess power.
Even without a government grant, the long-term costs of self-generation appear to be lower than buying from the grid. Just remember to factor in the cost of replacement and maintenance and not look only at the initial costs.
Renewable Energy needn’t be complicated
Generating your own renewable energy is a complicated project. Aside from finding the right mix of technologies, the cost benefits are often difficult to work out and local planning laws can restrict what you can do.
Fortunately, there are many professional firms and providers who can walk you through the process of installing your own renewable energy project. With technology costs falling as more people buy into the movement, and mainstream grid power costs rising, the point at which your home could become a power generator is coming ever closer.
Cover image credit: Jon Callas
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