Power to the People

Whether for heat or electricity, we all need power, but we don’t have to rely on the grid to get it.

by Carol Ekarius

Courtesy Helix Wind Corp.

Wind turbines use kinetic energy to create electricity.

Flip a switch: The lights come on. Turn a handle: Water flows from a faucet. Chilly? Crank up the thermostat. No milk in the fridge? Hop in the car and run to the store.

This is life in modern America. It’s convenient, but most of us recognize there are issues with our energy system. If you’re among the many people who would like to do something to reduce your electric bill, your carbon footprint and your dependence on foreign oil, you have many options for generating alternative power at home in the city, the suburbs and the exurbs.

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Odds are you’re among the 99 percent of Americans who are connected to the grid — a web of more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines, charged by 9,200 electric-generating units, delivering more than 1 million megawatts of generating capacity to homes across America. In fact, 40 percent of our national energy flows through these wires and is delivered to our homes and businesses as electricity.

The bad news is in 2008, only about 9 percent of electricity we consumed came from renewable sources, according to the Energy Information Administration. But there’s good news: That number is growing. According to the United Nations, in spite of the global recession, 2008 was a banner year for investments in renewable energy.

There are essentially two types of systems for renewable electricity: on grid and off grid.

On-grid Electricity

For a grid-tied electricity consumer, you can join a movement to become less dependent on fossil energy and nuclear power incrementally, still getting some of your electricity from the grid when necessary. Grid-tied consumers produce power, reducing the electric coming from the power plant. If you produce more than you’re using, the electricity will feed back into the grid, spinning your meter backward (called net metering).

In all states, utility providers purchase the excess energy if you make more than you use, but in only a handful of states are the utility companies required to buy electricity from you at the same rate at which they sell it to you (called equality). Some utilities stifle consumers who want to tie in and take advantage of net metering; however, the attitude among utilities has improved dramatically in the last few years.

Off-grid Elecricity

Off-the-grid generation systems supply 100 percent of the energy required for the household and have battery-backup systems to provide electricity needed at night or when the wind isn’t blowing. Owners can’t grow these systems over time. Instead, they must fully invest up front if they want to enjoy modern conveniences.

Off-the-grid consumers typically opt for gas or wood heat rather than electric and tend to use gas refrigerator-freezers, water heaters and stoves, as these are some of the biggest energy-sucking appliances. Batteries for these systems may require maintenance and generally need to be replaced every five to seven years.

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