Fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas can be converted to provide electricity, but once supplies are used up, they cannot be replaced. Sun, wind, and water are natural resources that are renewed continuously and can be harnessed to generate energy with a lower environmental impact than fossil fuels. For homeowners, renewable energy can reduce your need for conventional power and offers the potential for considerable energy savings.
While people living in remote areas may use stand-alone renewable energy systems, most homeowners purchase a grid-connected system. When the sun is shining, the water is running, or the wind is blowing, the system provides the power. If resources are less plentiful, electricity from the grid takes over, and your utility charges the difference between what you use and what you produce. Conversely, when your system generates excess electricity, your utility buys it from you in the form of credits to your bill.
Solar Electric Systems
A solar electric system, also called a photovoltaic system, typically involves installing solar panel racks on a roof. Sunlight captured by the panels goes through a converter that generates electricity to heat your home and water as well as power appliances and lighting. Companies may lease panels to homeowners, and some communities offer collective solar systems in which each homeowner gets a share of the power generated. To see if your state offer rebates, tax credits, and other incentives for solar electric systems, check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.
Wind Electric Systems
If you have at least one acre of land with good wind resources, you can install a small wind turbine that reduces energy costs by as much as 90%. These turbines are large fans atop 100-foot towers. Wind turns the fan blades to power an internal generator that connects to your breaker panel. Because peak operating times for wind and solar systems occur at different times of the day and year, homeowners often choose hybrid systems that combine the two resources.
Water Electric Systems
If you have a stream, creek, or other source of flowing water on your property, you can install a small 10-kilowatt hydropower system that will generate enough electricity to power a large home. Typically, hilly or mountainous sites with steadily falling water work best for this type of system.
Renewable Energy Requirements
To determine the ideal system type and size for your property, contact your state or local energy office, or a renewable energy organization to help you analyze your existing energy loads and to learn about codes, ordinances, and requirements regarding acceptable equipment and use of land. Some states or communities require permits and inspections to ensure that your system is installed properly and compliant with safety standards.
The independence gained from using renewable energy can be very rewarding over the long-term for you and the environment. But even if you are not ready to invest in a renewable energy system, many utility companies offer residents the opportunity to buy electricity made from the sun, wind, and water.